Story two of the Alice Munro Project is “The Shining Houses,” which is a beautiful, short, Alice Munro story. Let me emphasize that, a SHORT Alice Munro story. I don’t think I’ve ever read a short, short story by her before. Munro revels in the long end of the story form, some of her finest stories stretching to forty pages, or more, but this story does its work twelve pages, and ends where some of her later stories would be just beginning. That said, it works – the twelve pages create a story, complete in its arc, showing a character how has changed through the course of the story (which spans three or four hours), and in doing so, nudges at the readers relationship with the world, especially those of us who resonate with this reaction to the world, that,
There is nothing you can do at present but put your hands in your pockets and keep a disaffected heart. (29)
The shortness of my story brings many of my former students to mind. I regularly teach a class on the Short Story, and I begin the semester with many different approaches to defining the short story, and that remains a theme of the semester, so that by the end of the fifteen weeks, I expect my students to be able to define, in their own words, what makes up a short story. What makes a short story unique from a novel, or from a myth or a fairy tale, or different from a poem? I draw on many quotes and definitions for this, like Joyce Carol Oates who, in the Introduction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories posits that:
My personal definition of the form is that it represents a concentration of imagination, and not an expansion; it is no more than 10,000 words; and, no matter its mysteries or experimental properties, it achieves closure – meaning that, when it ends, the attentive reader can understand why. (7)
This definition uses length as part of the definition, and this is the parameter that most of my students initially use – i.e. that s short story must be short. However, there is more to the short story than that, indeed, one cannot overlook the bookending part of Oates’ definition, that it is “a concentration” of imagination, and that when it ends, “the attentive reader can understand why.” At first glance, the note about the ending seems odd, because surely we should also understand why a novel ends when it does, or why a poem ends, or a play or a film. And we do understand that, certainly, but what makes a short story different is that it so often ends where a novel may just have begun. The key is the attentive reader. In a fable or parable, the story ends with a moral, and thus attentiveness is not necessary, and in a novel, the books end with some sort of resolution, but in the short story, the resolution and climatic moment may often be one and the same, or if separated, than only by a few paragraphs.
In this story, we meet a elderly neighbor, living in an old country house that is now surrounded by new suburban developments. We meet her through the 3rd person limited POV perspective of Mary, and then we accompany Mary to a child’s birthday party at which the adults gather and are united in disparaging the elderly neighbor and her property, and scheme to forcibly remove her from her land. A petition is circulated, which brings up the climatic moment in which Mary refuses to sign. That is it. She doesn’t wage a campaign against the rest of the neighborhood, she doesn’t have a revelation about herself, she doesn’t have an affair, or some other big splashy gesture of drama. Instead, the power of this story in the fact that Mary is standing up and moving against the current of her neighbors – she is an outsider, much like the old lady. And this standing up for herself is HARD! It is not an easy thing to move against the tide, especially when you are not a person who relishes conflict and confrontation for their own sake. When she says, “I can’t sign that,”
Her face flushed up, at once, her voice was trembling.
This small moment was her huge climatic moment. And following that, she isn’t able to make any other argument, and she recognizes the futility of what she has done. She realizes that:
Oh, wasn’t it strange, how in your imagination, when you stood up for something, your voice rang, people started, abashed; but in real life they all smiled in rather a special way and you saw that what you had really done was serve yourself up as a conversational delight for the next coffee party. (28)
She is faced with the meaninglessness of what she has done, but in that resides the meaning – that by acting, she has set herself against the tide. And since this is a short story, this is where the story ends – allowing the power of this theme, of this little moment, to linger and resonate with the attentive reader.
This little moment reminds me of my Aunt Mary. My aunt died of cancer a few years ago, and a few years before that, right before her diagnoses, I called her for some advice. I was living in Maryland at the time, where I owned a house and had good friends, but I also wanted out. I had sold my business a few years earlier, and had taken up writing, and as the profit from that sale dwindled, I came to the realization that I didn’t mind being poor, as long as I was committed to what I was doing, but what I minded was being a poor writer while keeping up this suburban, safe lifestyle of a house, mortgage, etc., because the work of maintain that lifestyle took up the vast amount of my time and energy. I had been painting houses to pay the bills, with enough jobs coming up to keep me booked for the next six months. And besides that, I had good job offers to be a bookkeeper or a sales representative, with lots of freedom, money and opportunity to travel, and also had a job offer to be a technical writer for an aeronautics company, either job being a huge bump in salary, with benefits. And I knew I should take one of these jobs, or commit to turning my painting houses into a full-fledged company, but my instincts were screaming, “NO!” And so I was considering turning down those offers, selling my house, and moving to Virginia to live with my sister to help take care of her two very young children, and by living so cheaply, buy myself another year or two to write. That was my idea, and it terrified me as being so absolutely contrary to what any sane person would do, and so I called my aunt.
I called my aunt because my aunt had some experience in going against the grain. My aunt had been in the Navy, where she met her husband who was likewise in the Navy. She got out, while he stayed in, but then, for personal and ideological reasons he quit just about three years shy of retirement. It was an insane move from any outsider’s perspective, but it was what they needed to do. They then went on to do a variety of things, including purposely living below the poverty line for the eight years of the Reagan administration, because they didn’t want to financially support his policies. They lived in a bus, a log cabin, a teepee, and a variety of other places in between, with a variety of jobs, jobs for pay and jobs for barter. And finally they settled in Idaho, where my aunt worked as an addictions counselor, and my uncle ended up working for a few years for the National Guard, working as a cook and chaplain’s assistant for several years, and thus, in the end, earning his VA retirement (Authors’ Note: I may have gotten some of the above details wrong – but the core essence is right).
So I called my aunt to see what she thought of my plan, and she, of course, absolutely supported the idea, and when I said that I worried because I was nervous about this, and that I worried that the nervousness was my gut telling me that this was the wrong choice, she said:
It’s sometimes hard being a maverick, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
She expanded from there, basically telling me of how, while on the outside living a non-conformist lifestyle might seem cool, or crazy, or irresponsible to outsiders, as the one living it, it is sometimes just hard. As she put it,
It is hard to swim upstream, against the current, but sometimes upstream is the better place to go. Sometime upstream is worth the effort.
She assured me that I would have no way of knowing what would happen next, but that I just had to trust that if I put in the work, and stayed true to myself, things would work out in the end.
She was right, of course. I moved to Virginia, and eight years later, I have a great relationship with my niece and nephew (even though I only lived with them that first year, I now live only blocks away from them), and I ended up getting my MFA in Fiction while here, and now have a full-time university position teaching, and I have a full rich life in my new adopted home. This is all because of this foolhardy move that I made eight years ago. And it was hard, and painful, and like character in the story, I had to sometimes just walk through it with my “hands in [my] pockets and . . . a disaffected heart.”
In writing all of the above, I don’t mean to disparage comfortable lives, or good, secure jobs. I now have a salary, and benefits, and am so, so glad to have these things. But eight years ago, I needed to swim against the current more than I needed those things. And now I feel as if I’ve reached an upstream glacial lake, a cool, safe area to rest, and to practice and work at my writing and teaching. And because I’ve reached this place, I now can gather my strength to continue to swim upstream in other aspects and parts of my life. Swimming upstream doesn’t always mean quitting a job and selling all your belongings, sometimes swimming upstream means acting as Mary did, quietly standing up for what you believe is right, moving against the norm of society, or the norm of my family, or even more commonly now, the “norm” of myself, challenging and pushing against the comfortable ruts of my own life.
And so, somehow, this blog has turned into a reflection about myself, and less a reflection of craft, but I’ll have to be okay with that, because now it is time for me to get back to work on planning for the Fall semester, and to figure out the ways that I can encourage my students to find the strength and courage to purposefully swim against their own currents, what ever those currents may be.