I have been reading and rereading the four pieces in the “Finale” section of Alice Munro’s new collection Dear Life. Munro calls them “not quite stories,” forming a unit that she calls “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.” She says she believes they are “the first and last—and the closest—things I have had to say about my own life.”
I have already written about one of these memoirs—the title piece that appeared earlier in The New Yorker.” You can find it by typing “dear life” in the “search” line on the top right. The remaining three pieces—“The Eye,” “Night,” and “Voices,”—are interesting to me because they provide the opportunity to explore the differences between “memoir” and “short story.”
As usual, I did a little research on this relationship between memoir and story by typing the following in Google: “memoir vs. short story.” And the first thing that came up was a blog entry I wrote three years ago, and damn all, if it didn’t focus on a story by Alice Munro (“Some Women.”)! I am not sure I have anything new to say about the issue of memoir vs. story, vis-à-vis Alice Munro, but you never know until you start exploring.
Munro has said that she has based many of her stories on her own life. That is not unusual, of course. But the question I want to explore is: What is the difference between an anecdote of an actual event in one’s life and a short story based on that anecdote?
If you do some research on the memoir/fiction topic, you primarily will find discussions on the issue of “truth,” that is, did the event recounted “really happen”? This is a common question members of the audience often pose to writers at “readings.” Indeed, it is probably one of the first questions children ask when you tell them a bedtime story? I used to tell my children a story about being chased by a huge bull while picking blackberries in a pasture near my childhood home. They were more impressed with the story when I told them it really happened; they would have been less engaged if I had told them it was “made-up.”
This, of course, is one of the reasons why biographies and autobiographies are more popular than fiction; if the work is just a “story,” it seems less important, less interesting, less “real.” The flap about James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces raised the ethical question about fictionalizing one’s life experiences and calling it “memoir.” However, more pressing than the ethical question is the profit question: Narratives billed as an account of what actually happened simply sell better than narratives labeled as fiction.
Although this issue is most often raised with long fictions, it does occasionally crop up with short fictions. For example, when Rick Moody’s short piece "Demonology" was first published, it was listed as a memoir. However, the following year, it was included in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards for 1997. When asked to comment on the work for the O. Henry Award collection, Moody said there were few things he has written that he would rather talk about less than this. However, he once told an interviewer that he is always tying to muddy the surface of the nonfictional with fictional techniques by paying particular attention to form and structure. What makes "Demonology" so affecting are Moody's efforts to transform a powerful personal experience into something that has universal significance.
The title of the piece stems from the fact that the sister's death from arrhythmia takes place within the context of Halloween, her children dressed as demons and monsters, beating back the restless souls of the dead in search of sweets. This demon motif is repeated throughout the story until ultimately the sister is transformed into a "revenant" that compels Moody to find a way to use language to communicate his grief. The story ends with Moody, in a common self-referential tactic, considering how he should have constructed his memoir, telling himself he probably should have fictionalized it more, for example, conflating the sister's two children into one and making her boyfriend a husband. He says he should have let artifice create an elegant surface for the story, thus making his sister's death shapely and persuasive rather than blunt and disjunctive. However, it is precisely the blunt, barely restrained, voice that makes the story so powerful.
As a student of the short story, what interests me most about the blurry line between story and memoir is not the ethical or the economical issue, but the aesthetic one: Is there a basic difference in technique and thematic significance between a short story and a short memoir?
We might ask, why did Alice Munro give us “The Eye” as a memoir rather than a story? Was it because she felt the event that she recalls from when she was five years old—her first encounter with death—would not have yielded a complex story, but only a cliché? Of course, it is unlikely that Munro can recall in such detail the events of something that happened when she was five; it is more likely that she recalls some of the events from what her mother has told her over the years, whereas other aspects of the recollection may have actually been invented over the years. But what difference does that make?
Munro might very well have made the event recounted in “The Eye” into a story, for the child’s fascination with the romantic life of the hired girl Sadie and her ambiguous relationship with her mother can be seen in a number of Munro’s stories. The central thematic issue has something to do with the scene of the child looking down into the coffin and seeing the eyelid of the dead girl lifting just a tiny bit. This does not frighten the child, but rather it “falls into everything” that she knows about Sadie and also “into whatever special experience was owing to myself.” There is a sense of recognition here, a sense of identity, not the sense that a five-year-old would feel, but rather a sense that a woman would later remember as a mutual understanding.
The short piece “Night” is a much more discursive account, based largely on thinking about something rather than on seeing or doing something. We do not know the age of the child in this piece, but she is old enough, or young enough, to have some fantasies about strangling her younger sister during the night, and she loses sleep about it. Her brief talk with her father one night when she walks out of the house is enough to make her identify with him and to appreciate his wisdom. For when she tells him about her fantasies of strangling her sister, he says not to worry, for “People have those kinds of thoughts sometimes.” And she knows that he has given her just what she needed to hear.
In “Voices,” Munro is ten years old and accompanies her mother to a dance in a home to which a prostitute has brought one of her girls. But it is not the girl that so fascinates the young Munro; rather it is the talk she overhears of some of the Air Force men stationed nearby who try to comfort the young woman, and she marvels at how they bow down and declare themselves in front of her. Later, she thinks of those men, and hears their voices directed to her: “Their hands blessed my own skinny thighs and their voices assured me that I, too, was worthy of love.” This fascination with mysterious sexuality and the risky business of becoming thought desirable to men is a common theme in many of Munro’s stories. Of these three short memoir pieces, “Voices” is, because of this thematic echo, the closest to merging into the realm of fiction.
For me, the difference between the recounting of an actual event and a fictional event has nothing to do with whether the event actually occurred, but rather whether the event “means” anything. My own experience with writing fiction is minimal. Although I have several notebooks of observations, recollections, and descriptions, I have only published two stories. Both stories are based on actual events, although they did not all happen at the same time; rather they are disparate fragments that seemed to “go together” thematically. I think putting the various “real life” events together in the way I did by providing for them a “point of view” actually resulted in “stories.” However, I still have many recollections in my notebooks that remain simply that—recollections. I will provide one example of what I think is a recollection that could, with the right point of view and the right context, become a story.
When I was young, my maternal grandmother lived in the country on a farm, and I recall her in that rural context. However, my father’s mother was a “city girl,” although the “city” where I lived was a small Kentucky mountain town of approximately 4,000 people. My “city grandmother” seemed more sophisticated than my country grandmother, although she only had a high school education. I have many memories of her, of course, but one image sticks in my mind, although I am not sure I ever actually saw it or whether I created it out of the “late show” 1940s movies that I stayed up and watched the whole summer the first year we got television.
Here is the image:
The Paintsville Hotel is on the main street of town, just two doors down from the Greyhound bus station, which I remember as the center of exciting activity. Between the two is the Kentucky Cafe where I occasionally stopped to play the pinball machine and get a cherry joke. In front of the Hotel the sidewalk is made of glass brick. The barber shop, where my paternal grandfather, always dressed in a white shirt and black bowtie, cut my hair, was just below, and because he always keep a light on there all night, a glow came up through the glass bricks so that when you walked across them it was like something out a Busby Berkely musical. What I remember is my grandmother in a black dress and a long black coat with a high fur collar. The collar is pushed up on her neck so that it met her short white hair. She has on heels and I see her walking down the street toward me, past the bus station, past the Kentucky Cafe, and onto the glass bricks that give a radiance to her nyloned legs. Her head is high, and her pelvis is thrust forward a bit; she looks slightly amused at something. She walks fast, her arms across her breasts, and the breeze her motion makes stirs the fur around her neck.
That is only a memoir image, but placed in the right context with the right point of view, some meaningful narrative movement, and related thematic details, it could be a story, don’t you think? Whether it happened or not is not important.