Alice Munro

A Writer Reflects

Below, Alice Munro, Canadian author and winner of the Nobel and Man Booker prizes, reflects on creativity and her writing process in a 1994 interview with Jeanne McCullock and Mona Simpson of The Paris Review.


I had no chance to be anything [but a writer] because I had no money.  I knew I would only be at universeity two years because the scholarships available at that time lasted only two years.  It was this little vacation in my life, a wonderful time.  I had been in charge of the house at home when I was in my teens, so university was about the only time in my life that I haven't had to do housework.

The New Yorker was really my first experience with serious editing.  Previously I'd more or less just had copyediting with a few suggestions--not much.  There has to be an agreement between the editor and me about the kind of thing that can happen.  An editor who thought nothing happened in William Maxwell's stories, for example, would be of no use to me.  There also has to be a very sharp eye for the ways that I could be deceiving myself.  Chip McGrath at The New Yorker was my first editor, and he was so good.  I was amazed that anybody could see that deeply into what I wanted to do.  Sometimes we didn't do much, but occasionally he gave me a lot of direction.  I rewrote one story called "The Turkey Season," which he had already bought.  I thought he would simply accept the new version but he didn't.  He said, 'Well there are things about the new version I like better, and there are things about the old version I like better.  Why don't we see?'  He never says anything like, 'We will.'  So we put it together and I got a better story that way, I think. 

I was about thirty-six [when my first book came out].  I'd been writing these stories over the years and finally an editor at Ryerson Press, a Canadian publisher that has since been taken over by McGraw-Hill, wrote and asked me if I had enough stories for a book.  Originally he was going to put me in a book with two or three other writers.  That fell through, but he still had a bunch of my stories.  Then he quit but passed me onto another editor, who said, If you could write three or more stories, we'd have a book.  And so I wrote "Images," "Walker Brothers Cowboy," and "Postcard" during the last year before the book was published.  

When the kids were little my time [to write] 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 wasn't working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably until 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.

Any story that's going to be any good is usually going to change.  Right now I'm starting a story cold.  I've been working on it every morning and it's pretty slick.  I don't really like it, but I think maybe, at some point, I'll be into it.  Usually, I have a lot of acquaintance with the story before I start writing it.  When I don't have regular time to give to writing, stories would just be working in my head for so long that when I started to write I was deep into them.  Now, I do that work by filling notebooks.  I have stacks of notebooks that contain this terribly clumsy writing, which is just getting anything down.  I often wonder, when I look at these first drafts, if there was any point in doing this at all.  I'm the opposite of a writer with a quick gift, you know, someone who gets it piped in.  I don't grasp very readily at all, the "it" being whatever I'm trying to do.  I often get on the wrong track and have to haul myself back.

I could be writing away one day and think I've done very well; I've done more pages than I usually do.  Then I get up the next morning and realize I don't want to work on it anymore.  When I have a terrible reluctance to go near it, when I would have to push myself to continue, I generally know that something is badly wrong.  Often, in about three quarters of what I do, I reach a point somewhere, fairly early on, when I think i'm going to abandon this story.  I get myself through a day or two of bad depression, grouching around.  And I think of something else I can write.  It's sort of like a love affair: you're getting out of all of the disappointment and misery by going out with some new man you don't really like at all, but you haven't noticed that yet.  Then, I will suddenly come up with something about the story that I abandoned; I will see how to do it.  But that only seems to happen after I've said, No, this isn't going to work, forget it.