Monday, August 18, 2008

The importance of looking out of the window

Canadian Alice Munro is one of the best short story writers in the world. That is an indisputable fact. My friend Anna Horsley has already won a major writing award (the Adam Prize) for the manuscript of her short story collection but has yet to publish a book. Both writers share a common activity: staring out of windows.

Anna calls it 'work'. She says it is as much work as the act of sitting typing stories onto her laptop. She says writing requires thinking time and staring out of windows is part of that. Windows are good for observing people too.

One day recently - free of the usual obligations she has as a creative writing tutor - Anna said she stared out of the window all day. She explained to me that Alice Munro recommends it.

Later she sent me a link to which has quotes by Munro including this one:
I can't play bridge. I don't play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn't seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.
As a writer with a family to bring up and tutor responsibilities, too, I sometimes feel guilty about the amount of time I spend apparently doing nothing. I realise now, though, that the brain needs uncommitted time to sift and order things if it's going to serve up stories. More importantly it needs to free-fall sometimes.
It also needs unfettered time to observe the world going by.

So I try now to look out of windows without feeling guilty (and to stop justifying the lack of bridge and tennis...) Here's Alice again:
In twenty years I've never had a day when I didn't have to think about someone else's needs. And this means the writing has to be fitted around it.
Which is one reason, apparently, why she wrote short stories rather than novels. With three children to bring up, Munro wrote when she could and spent 20 years putting together her first collection of stories. Dance of the Happy Shades was published when she was 37 in 1968.

Since then she's published another dozen books including her memoir-based novel The View from Castle Rock and now, in her late 70s, has quit writing. Which is terrible news for all those fans like me and Anna who thirst for her work.

I remember reading one of Munro's stories in Runaway while I was writing The Blue and it showing me suddenly and simply how to write about love in a way that was unsentimental, visceral, raw, astonishing. Munro says,
I want the reader to feel something is astonishing. Not the 'what happens,' but the way everything happens.

And here's a review in the International Herald Tribune which tries to come to grips with why Munro is so good - and, I suppose, why looking out the window works. It starts by saying she is a writer of 'unsurpassable distinctions.'

The distinctions that Munro has been elaborating on for years along the prairies, small towns, and modest lives of Canada operate upon the heart. They are particle metaphysics, and their collisions release an energy that all but mutates the reader's mental and emotional genes.
Afterward, we glow faintly in the dark.
Heart is a word dangerously subject to sentimental abuse; even worse is heartstrings. Useful, though, in attempting to suggest the nature of Munro's art. She moves on a fine workaday surface; then, unsignaled, reaches deep with delicate and knowing fingers to tug the filament of a brainily targeted emotion. Her unremarkable landscapes are dotted with rabbit holes; falling in, we grow, we shrink, we are at a loss, and then unexpectedly found.


Rachael King said...

I often think that the life of a writer (or perhaps, more accurately, my life) looks a lot like laziness to the outside world.

Anonymous said...

I love this post Mary, thanks for posting it. I love that phrase "Afterward, we glow faintly in the dark"...
Haven't read her, but now I will, any one you recommend as a starting point?

Mary McCallum said...

Thanks G-G, I'm guessing you're someone who likes leaning on the windowsill a little... For Munro, Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage is a fantastic collection and people seem to agree its one of her best. Runaway, which I think was her last collection, was wonderful, too, with inter-woven stories.

Anonymous said...

When I am able, yes to leaning. Though I am soon to move my office where my desk will face a wall, so am wondering how that will all work out...thanks for the tips of Munro books, will make a mental note

Mary McCallum said...

I don't like the idea of facing a wall but it's often best for the eyes when using a computer and it's how my sometime study is set up. I'd prefer to write looking out a window - like Hughes writing 'Thought Fox'. Or at least to have one I can glimpse when I lift my head to get a sense of the world out there. So I often end up in the family room with windows and light and heat and foot traffic ...

Law and Order said...

This is very helpful Mary. I've been meaning to read Alice Munro but there's such a pile on my desk and by the bed. I'm glad of the recommendation. Speaking of windows I read somewhere that looking out the window distracts the writer from getting on with it. After reading this great post I'm not so sure about that.

Vanda Symon said...

I've long since stopped feeling the need to justify staring out windows and contemplation by distraction. Writing for me isn't something that can be turned on and off like a tap. Tuning out, whether on a walk, or hanging out washing, or plain ole distance gazing is a necessary part of the process.

I'm going to have to track down some Alice Munro now.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Mary. I love Alice Munro!

I always feel guilty just 'mooching' or 'brain-surfing' as my husband calls it - I think because I only get nine kid-free hours per week I feel like I must use every minute wisely, actively, busily...but I look forward to some more daydreaming, contemplating time as my boys get older.

x Helen

Unknown said...

I think I've got quite a few too many windows.

Interesting blog Mary; I'm looking forward to reading the Frame/Plath entry below.

When I can tear myself away from my window.

Anonymous said...

Oh, no! I missed the news that Alice Munro has quit! Terrible news for us fans. That Herald Tribune quotation really pins it down.

A propos staring out of windows, I think more of a poet's work goes on in the head. It's harder for novelists to take the time - that's an awful lot of words to grapple with - but no doubt just as necessary.

I have a pair of windows in my study, but sit facing the wall between them, so I have what you might call a horse's-eye view of the road, which works very well. I can look out when my eye-muscles need to rest, but it's not distracting. But then, it is a very quiet road with nothing happening, even if it is only 20 minutes drive from Picadilly Circus.