What Alice Munro Would Never Do

It is common to say “I was heartbroken to hear” that so-and-so died, but I really do feel heartbroken having learned about Alice Munro, who died on Monday.

As a writer, she modeled, in her life and art, that one must work with emotional sincerity and precision and concentration and depth — not on every kind of writing but on only one kind, the kind closest to one’s heart.

She has long been a North Star for many writers and was someone I have always felt guided by. We are very different writers, but I have kept her in mind, daily and for decades, as an example to follow (but failed to follow to the extent that she demonstrated it): that a fiction writer isn’t someone for hire.

A fiction writer isn’t someone who can write anything — movies, articles, obits! She isn’t a person in service to the magazines, to the newspapers, to the publishers or even to her audience. She doesn’t have to speak on the political issues of the day or on matters of importance to the culture right now but ought first and most to attend seriously to her task, which is her only task, writing the particular thing she was most suited to write.

Ms. Munro only ever wrote short stories — not novels, though she must have been pressured to. She died in a small town not too far from where she was born, choosing to remain close to the sort of people she grew up with, whom she remained ever curious about. Depth is wherever one stands, she showed us, convincingly.

Fiction writers are people, supposedly, who have things to say; they must, because they are so good with words. So people are always asking them: Can you say something about this or about this? But the art of hearing the voice of a fictional person or sensing a fictional world or working for years on some unfathomable creation is, in fact, the opposite of saying something with the opinionated and knowledgeable part of one’s mind. It is rather the humble craft of putting your opinions and ego aside and letting something be said through you.

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