Mother-Writer: Alice Munro

Nov 20


If you’re going to be a writer you’ll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think, “There must be something else people do,” you won’t be able to quit.

– Alice Munro

I first heard the news from Margaret Atwood, who tweeted, “Hooray!”: Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. On October 10, 2013, 82-year-old Munro was awoken by her daughter in the wee hours of the morning to tell her that she had won creative writing’s highest honor – a remarkable achievement on its own, but one made even more distinctive by the fact that Munro is a Canadian, a mother, and a writer of short stories.

Alice Ann Laidlaw was born and raised in rural Ontario, a place that remains the setting for many of her stories and where she knew “no girls” and “very few boys” who went to college. Having grown up in a family where stories were handed down through the generationsshe began writing as a girl, in “about grade seven or eight,” but had to squeeze a creative life in among the many jobs – waiting tables, picking tobacco, sorting books in a library – she did to help keep her family afloat. Her “puritanical” mother, who wanted Alice to be a “Sunday-school-recitation little girl,” suffered from Parkinson’s so Alice had to take on even more of the household duties than was normally expected of a girl of her era. Alice was a voracious reader who always felt confident about her writing: “I think in a way that my confidence came just from being dumb. Because I lived so out of any mainstream, I didn’t realize that women didn’t become writers as readily as men, and that neither did people from a lower class. If you know you can write fairly well in a town where you’ve hardly met anyone else who reads, you obviously think this is a rare gift indeed.”

She published her first short story while studying English at the University of Western Ontario. Knowing that her scholarship would last only two years, Alice used her time there to write seriously: “It was this little vacation in my life, a wonderful time…university was about the only time in my life that I haven’t had to do housework.” Alice left school after two years to marry fellow student James Munro in 1951. The couple then moved to Vancouver for James’s job. Of her choice to marry, she has said, “I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, This was a hard-hearted young woman. I’m a far more conventional woman now than I was then.”

Over the next six years, Alice gave birth to three daughters, Sheila, Catherine, and Jenny; though born alive, Catherine died a few hours after birth. When she was pregnant with Sheila, Alice has said that she wrote “desperately” because she feared she “would never be able to write afterwards. Each pregnancy spurred me to get something big done before the baby was born.” Despite her worries, she wrote steadily throughout her girls’ early years, her babies “lying in the crib beside [her].” When her daughters were very young, she worked during their naps, “[f]rom one to three in the afternoon. I wrote a lot of stuff that wasn’t any good, but I was fairly productive.” Although Alice originally had the goal of becoming a novelist, she started out writing short stories “because that was the only way I could get any time. I could take off housekeeping and childrearing for a certain amount of time but never for the amount that you need to write a novel. And after a while I got as if the story form…is what I wanted to do. I could say what I wanted to say in that space.”

Munro struggled with her writing during her earliest years as a mother, though not because of the housework or the children; “I’d done housework all my life,” she recalls, “It was the sort of open rule that women who tried to do anything so weird as writing were unseemly and possibly neglectful.” She felt surrounded by women with whom she didn’t feel a sisterhood: “There was a lot of competitive talk about vacuuming and washing the woolies, and I got quite frantic…So many things were forbidden – like taking anything seriously. Life was very tightly managed as a series of permitted recreations, permitted opinions, and permitted ways of being a woman.” Things improved when the family moved to a different suburb where she made “great friends,” a time she can imagine writing about, “that subversive society of young women, all keeping each other alive.” In 1963, the Munros moved to Victoria where they opened and managed a bookstore. In 1966, their fourth daughter, Andrea, was born. Alice describes a process of sneaking in her work that is likely familiar to all parents who write:

When the kids were little, my time was as soon as they left for school. So I worked very hard in those years. My husband and I owned a bookstore, and even when I was working there, I stayed at home until noon. I was supposed to be doing housework, and I would also do my writing then. Later on, when I was working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework, trying to get it all done before late afternoon…I used to work until maybe one o’clock in the morning and then get up at six. And I remember thinking, You know, maybe I’ll die, this is terrible, I’ll have a heart attack…then I thought, Well even if I do, I’ve got that many pages written now. They can see how it’s going to come out. It was a kind of desperate, desperate race.

Two years later, at age 37, Alice published her first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, which met with critical acclaim, winning the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary prize. She went on to publish 13 more collections, many of them award-winning, and her individual stories have appeared regularly in The New Yorker, among other top publications. She has been roundly praised for her precision, and her ability to create in very few words “a fully realized story that provides remarkable insight into human beings, their shortcomings, their complexities, their loves, their lives.” Her main character is usually a woman, “usually well-educated…and often bumping against the confines of her life,” an experience Munro herself knows well.

Alice and James divorced in 1972. After divorcing, Alice moved back to Ontario, where she wrote and taught at the university where she had studied, and married former classmate Gerald Fremlin in 1976. (The couple lived together in a quiet, book-lined home until Fremlin’s death earlier this year.) In 1994, Munro claimed to be doing “less personal writing” because “[y]ou use up your childhood…The deep, personal material of the latter half of your life is your children. You can write about your parents when they’re gone, but your children are still going to be here, and you’re going to want them to come and visit you in the nursing home. Maybe it’s advisable to move on to writing those stories that are more observation.” Now that her children are grown, Munro worries that her preoccupation with her work during their early years has hurt them:

I want to keep ringing up my children and saying, Are you sure you’re all right? I didn’t mean to be such a…Which of course would make them furious because it implies that they’re some kind of damaged goods. Some part of me was absent for those children, and children detect things like that. Not that I neglected them, but I wasn’t wholly absorbed. When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other. I’ve told her that. This was bad because it made her adversary to what was most important to me. I feel I’ve done everything backwards: this totally driven writer at the time when the kids were little and desperately needed me. And now, when they don’t need me at all, I love them so much. I moon around the house and think, There used to be a lot more family dinners.

After her childrearing days and until recently when her health began to decline, Munro wrote “every morning, seven days a week” from about eight to 11, leaving the rest of the day for “real life,” working longer hours if editing a manuscript or if she knew she would miss writing time later in the week. Despite her years of success, she still carries with her the mantel of expectations worn by women of her generation: “There tends not to be the feeling that this is what you deserve. I still find it hard to think that I deserve this time – to this day. I can be made to feel guilty if a friend phones just to chat…Also just about all the things that I could be doing to be a better homemaker, as I was trained to be.”

Since winning the Nobel Prize, Munro has said that it wasn’t something she’d thought much about, busy as she was with “many family things to do.” But it was a welcome surprise, “I hope this would happen not just for me but for the short story in general. Because it’s so often sort of brushed off, you know, as something that people do before they write their first novel. And I would like it to come to the fore, without any strings attached, so that there doesn’t have to be a novel.” Earlier this year, before the Nobel, Munro had announced her retirement, a decision she may be reconsidering: “I’ve been doing it for so many years. I’ve been writing and publishing, I think, since I was about twenty…but that’s a long time to be working and I thought maybe it’s time to take it easy. But this may change my mind.” After all, she said in 1994, “The only thing that I’ve ever had to fill my life has been writing. So I haven’t learned how to live a life with a lot of diversity.”

Image: Alice Munro by Hogne via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.