In recent weeks I’d been seeking an article in which Alice Munro describes how she goes about reading a short story.
In my search for the article, which I recently located, I borrowed from the Toronto Public Library several books by John Metcalf, in the hope his books might help me find Alice Munro’s article.
In reading Metcalf’s memoirs, I came across a comment from Margaret Atwood.
In his second volume of memoirs, Metcalf mentions that at one point Atwood wrote — in an essay, “An end to audience?” — that writers of fiction were in a position to take on whatever role organized religion had taken on in the past.
Atwood speaks in the essay of fiction writing as “our guardian of the moral and ethical sense of the community.”
Especially given that “organized religion is scattered and in disarray,” and politicians have lost credibility, she writes, “fiction is one of the few forms left through which we can examine our society not in its particular but in its typical aspects; through which we can see ourselves and the ways in which we behave toward each other, through which we can see others and judge them and ourselves….”
Non-fiction and fiction sometimes occupy a borderland
I don’t read much literature that belongs to the fiction genre.
However, Alice Munro’s 1982 article about how she reads a short story, which appears in The art of the short story (2006), has had a strong impact on my reading habits.
Munro likes to read a story by starting anywhere, and then moving back or forward from there; and sometimes she reads a story from start to finish in the usual way.
I now read non-fiction books — usually from the Toronto Public Library — by starting anywhere, and reading as much or as little as I wish.
Among the memoirs that I’ve read, one that particularly stays in mind is Munro’s The view from Castle Rock (2006).
The book occupies the borderland between fact and fiction.
I don’t read much fiction because non-fiction includes enough fiction to keep me occupied.
Our brains are wired for self-talk
Another level in which stories can occur is at the level of one’s ongoing internal chatter.
These are the stories that we tell ourselves.
There is strong evidence, in reports in peer-reviewed professional journals published over the course of several decades, that what can be described as cognitive behavioural repositioning, or reframing, offers good outcomes for individuals seeking to improve the quality of their lives.
By way of example, when I was first learning to engage in public speaking, after many years of avoiding it, I would often encounter self-talk along the lines of, “Why did I ever agree to make this presentation?”
In such a circumstance, I would draw a line down the middle of an index card.
On the right-hand side I would write down this recurring automatic negative thought.
On the left-hand side I would write an alternative positive thought such as, “The upcoming talk offers a wonderful opportunity for me to see how close I can get to speaking at 220 syllables per minute.”
That approach was highly effective in changing the tenor of my self-talk. It has contributed to my success as a public speaker.
Self-talk at the community level
Stories also figure prominently at the public level.
Communities have a duty to generate — and to share and preserve — their own stories, rather than depending entirely on others to perform this task for them.
A community’s sense of ownership of its own narrative — of its story and history — is an essential feature of a civil society.
A particularly powerful and credible community narrative is one that is based on the sharing of accurate — evidence-based — and balanced information.
An ideal context, for this kind of sharing, is an information commons, which serves as an impartial forum for the expression of a wide range of views about the history of a given community.
Dear life (2012) is a recent collection of short stories by Alice Munro.