Deep Holes by Alice Munro

“Deep Holes” is a short story by Alice Munro. You can find it in the June 30 2008  edition of The New Yorker. I’m very much reminded of Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer and the real life of Christopher McCandless.

But “Deep Holes” is not the story of the son — it’s the story of the mother, left behind to deal with the loss of a child in this way. How does a mother cope with that? Continue reading “Deep Holes by Alice Munro”

Free Radicals by Alice Munro

free radicals

My reading of “Free Radicals” by Alice Munro (2008) is highly metaphorical. To me, this is a story about the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, and the new vulnerability older women feel when their male partner dies before them.

Read literally, though, and this is the story of one woman’s brush with a serial murdering intruder — a rare crime story from Alice Munro.

Continue reading “Free Radicals by Alice Munro”

The Psychology of Hoarding

hoarding

How is hoarding treated in fiction, if at all?

In her short story “Free Radicals“, Alice Munro portrays a woman working through the recent loss of her husband.

First, the way friends react — helpfully and unhelpfully. Funeral arrangements, immediate aftermath.

Memories, both painful and beautiful, mixed in together to paint a portrait of a rounded life.

The lonely act of walking into rooms and finding him conspicuous by his absence.

Then, the following detail stuck out to me:

She did make up the bed and tidy her own little messes in the kitchen or the bathroom, but in general the impulse to take on any wholesale sweep of housecleaning was beyond her. She could barely throw out a twisted paper clip or a fridge magnet that had lost its attraction, let alone the dish of Irish coins that she and Rich had brought home from a trip fifteen years ago. Everything seemed to have acquired its own peculiar heft and strangeness.

— Alice Munro, “Free Radicals”

Alice Munro must have observed that the recently bereft tend to hold onto things.

A few days before reading the story I listened to a completely unrelated interview between Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland. (“I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain”) Coupland happened to get talking about the psychology of hoarding.

Hoarding behaviours are often a way of dealing with trauma and grief. Hoarding tends to run in families.

Anecdotally, hoarding disorder (HD) may have links to autism and other neuro-differences, though studies don’t tend to show this.

So far, HD seems most clearly linked to obsessive compulsive disorders behaviours rather than other forms of mental ill-health.

What I didn’t know before listening to Kim Hill and Douglas Coupland speak on it (at about the 27:30 mark): Certain medications can provoke hoarding behaviours. Coupland mentions a drug for Parkinson’s disease, which also treats restless leg syndrome. This leads to hoarding behaviour in some people. This is not widely known.

Also not widely known: The genetic link between restless leg syndrome and ADHD. I’m sure this all triangulates eventually. (I have all three in my extended family.)

Kim Hill says she’s not ‘hoardy’, but admits that most people don’t think they’re hoardy. Then someone comes round and points out your massive and totally reasonable collection of dishcloths.

Psychology has much to learn about hoarding and related psychologies. But one thing is clear: Hoarding is not a moral issue. A behaviour which can be provoked by medication, or quick and extreme loss, suggests hoarding disorder could happen to any of us. You can almost set your clock to it, Coupland says. “Eighteen to twenty months later [after the loss], hoarding kicks in.” Being self-aware, knowing that you have a predilection for hoarding, makes no difference.

And Douglas Coupland, sometimes accused of being a hoarder himself, counters the museum minimalist types with this: If you live in a white box, you’re just a different kind of hoarder. You’re simply hoarding space.

So what of the proliferation of reality TV shows which make a spectacle of hoarders and their houses? Why is there so much appetite for those shows? Does it say something terrible about our natural human voyeurism? Is it exploitation? Much has been said on this matter already, and I agree with it all, but what lessons might storytellers learn about the content people crave?

I believe it comes back to ‘glamour’, in one specific sense. The archetypically ‘glamorous’ place is the store that sells containers for keeping our stuff in. We walk into those stores and are immediately charmed by the idea that we, too, could be super organised, and this would improve our lives.

We love the hoarding shows because we look at that mess and we see how much better it could be. Just hire five skips, we think. Bleach the hell out of that place and it would look so much better. Audiences widely love Marie Kondo. We love building shows, home renovation shows, move to the country shows and even cooking shows, for the same deep-rooted reasons.

This desire to improve plays into a specific wish fulfilment: for order, for constant improvement, for the opposite of entropy. For safety. For this same reason I loved Little House In The Big Woods as a six-year-old. In the fictional Ingalls’ lives, things were constantly getting better. Log cabins were getting built, food was getting preserved for winter, ground was being covered.

Now, for storytellers to meet that need without real life exploitation.

RELATED

Listen to Australian podcast All In The Mind for an episode on the psychology of hoarding. (There’s also a transcript.)

Header photo by Onur Bahçıvancılar on Unsplash

Fiction by Alice Munro, Nuanced Infidelity

bookstore

“Fiction” is a short story by Alice Munro (2009). From the title itself we might expect it to be metafictional. Sure enough, there are constant reminders to consider the role of fiction in our lives.

The following interview, from 2006, offers some extra insight into the story, and why Munro may have written it. For a few years she owned a bookstore and people used to come in to the store and tell her, as a matter of pride, two things: They don’t read Canadian books and they don’t read fiction. However, she also says that is no longer the case.

I don’t want to map Munro’s fictional Joyce onto Munro herself, but there are some parallels:

Like Joyce, Munro divorced her first husband during the hippie revolution. Though unlike Joyce, Munro explains that ‘everyone was doing it’ during this era and people who didn’t seemed ‘almost apologetic’ for staying together. Joyce does not feel like that at all. She feels grief and anxiety.

Continue reading “Fiction by Alice Munro, Nuanced Infidelity”

Passion by Alice Munro

Passion by Alice Munro

“Passion” is a short story by Alice Munro, published 2004 in The New Yorker.  This story has much in common with “What Is Remembered“. An elderly woman looks back to when she was young, in a vulnerable psychological state. In both, the younger woman gets into a car with a ravishing bad-boy doctor, contrasting against the hum-drum of life with her fiance/husband.

I’m making these stories sound like erotic romance, but in these short stories the focus is on character psychology. “Passion” is partly playing on the erotics of abstinence, seen also in works like Pride and Prejudice and Twilight. Will they or won’t they? Salacious interest is partly what gives the story its narrative drive. Continue reading “Passion by Alice Munro”

What Is Remembered by Alice Munro

what is remembered

“What Is Remembered” by Alice Munro appears in the print edition of the February 19, 2001, issue of The New Yorker. It was also published in the collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

Looking back as an old lady, this short story focuses on several days across one young woman’s life in which she hooks up with a doctor she meets at her husband’s friend’s funeral. The memory of this event sustains her, imaginatively, for the rest of her life, and allows her to lead this parallel imagined life in which she remained single and more adventurous. In this way, “What Is Remembered” reminds me of Bridges Over Madison County.

I’m also reminded of a song by Nancy Sinatra.

Continue reading “What Is Remembered by Alice Munro”

Alice Munro, Queenie & Coercive Control

One remarkable thing about Alice Munro: her ability to see aspects of psychology which only drew public attention decades later. In “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” we have a beautiful character study of a philandering man and, his self-justification for wrong-doing and what has since been called sexual solipsism. In “Queenie” Munro paints a picture of what the authorities call ‘coercive control’, or what is known in pop-culture as ‘gaslighting’ (after the 1944 movie). Continue reading “Alice Munro, Queenie & Coercive Control”

Silence by Alice Munro

Silence Alice Munro

“Silence” is a short story by Alice Munro, one of three in a triptych about a woman called Juliet. The first are “Chance” and “Soon“.

All three are published in the Runaway collection (2004).

[“Silence”] brings to the foreground a theme that runs through many stories by Alice Munro—the role of silence within the network of domestic relations.

Corinne Bigot

Read “Silence” online at The New Yorker.

Structurally, “Silence” is a mythic journey which spans approximately half of a woman’s entire life. The story opens with Juliet off on a trip in order to find information. Along the way she meets allies, opponents (most are a mixture of both), then returns ‘home’ a changed person after solving part of the mystery and learning something important about herself.

Usually when I break down a story into classic seven step structure, there’s a fairly clear line between each step. One masterful thing about work of Alice Munro: the lines are not there. “Silence” makes an excellent case study of a short story in which the ‘Self-revelation’ phase melts in to the ‘New Equilibrium’ stage. The reader keeps having revelation after revelation, then bang, there’s the big gut punch, right at the end. Continue reading “Silence by Alice Munro”

Runaway by Alice Munro Short Story

Runaway cover Alice Munro

“Runaway” is the first short story of Alice Munro’s 2004 collection. It was also published in The New Yorker, where you can read it online. “Runaway” makes for a great mentor text for the following reasons:

  • Nuance of human motivations. The desire is at the ‘complex’ end of the spectrum — our main character doesn’t actually know what it is she wants. How do you write that kind of character, when we’re told over and over that our main character has to ‘want’ something? Carla is a great case study.
  • A Plan which is actually a fantasy plan, but still works as a proxy.
  • A Battle scene which follows the ‘real’ battle.
  • A Self-revelation had by two characters first presented as ‘parallels’, now revealed to be ‘inverse’ characters. One achieves more insight into her own psychology; the other — we extrapolate — never will. The latter does realise something — a proxy revelation — just not about herself.

STORYWORLD OF “RUNAWAY”

Continue reading “Runaway by Alice Munro Short Story”

Introvert and Extravert Writers

Here’s the kind of introvert/extravert stuff you find in your feed and dismiss as oversimplified “research” clickbait:

If you like sci-fi movies, hate pool parties and watch “The Walking Dead” then chances are you’re an introvert, according to new research.

New York Post

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of personality dualities. That aside, these broad narrative tastes do line up nicely with the intro/extraversion of my own friends and family. So let’s roll with this as a thought experiment. While I can’t work out how the researchers defined introverts vs extraverts in the first place:

  • Extroverts identified excitement as their driving emotion
  • Introverts can be found watching a thriller like “The Walking Dead” or a crime drama like “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” and “Law & Order: SVU.”
  • Extroverts prefer reality-based entertainment. They can be found watching the latest episode of “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” “The Bachelor/Bachelorette,” “The Voice,” and “America’s Got Talent.”

When it comes to writing, do introverted and extraverted writers face different issues? I don’t mean ‘sitting in a room alone for months’ versus ‘marketing the hell out of a published book’, which is a painful disconnect covered elsewhere. I mean, at the story level, might introverts and extraverts be more prone to certain pitfalls?

INTROVERTED WRITER PROBLEMS

Bubbly Best Friends Stealing The Spotlight

I’ve seen literary agents post things like this:

Bubbly best friend

Cheryl Klein continues her thread:

We have all these loudmouth, confident girls in MG — Clementine, Dory, Fantasmagory, Cleo Edison Oliver. Where do they go in YA? Am I just missing them? I asked a writer about this once — I said, “I love this best friend; write a novel about her!” — and she said there wasn’t enough ‘there’ for a novel, int he kind of novels this writer wrote. But I thought (and still think) that’s unfair to the loudmouths. Even loudmouths have things they don’t say; everyone can change with the right kind of pressure. And that’s all you need to build a novel. Or even better: the loudmouth will say the thing that she shouldn’t say, again and again, and that makes a GREAT novel.

This hit home because I am currently workshopping a YA novel about a teenage girl who has a bubbly best friend. Part of her character arc is that she becomes  individuated and self-driven, but my critique group has encouraged me to make my ‘main character’ less of a ‘viewpoint character’ from the beginning. I honestly didn’t mean for the best friend to be more interesting, because I get rid of her partway through the story. When I think back to high school, I was definitely the introverted half of an intro/extraverted pair of BFFs. I, myself, am a viewpoint character.

There’s another issue here, of course: How do you even define a main character? This isn’t as easy to answer as you might think. If I’m ever having trouble working ithis out I ask ‘Which character changes the most?’ but even then, that can be too simple:

  • If the best friend is the offering commentary on the bubbly best friend, doesn’t that still make the best friend THE main character, kind of like what Fitzgerald did with narration in The Great Gatsby, or by Joseph Conrad before him?
  • The character who changes the most might change via the telling of the story itself. In fact, that’s the raison d’être of a storyteller narrator — they come to some sort of realisation because they’re telling this particular story.
  • Viewpoint characters tend to have more reflective personalities, and are therefore more open to development than an interesting but boneheaded character who keeps on keeping on. So defining ‘main character’ cannot be about ‘range of change’, but — to borrow a Yahoo word — ‘range of ‘interestingness’.

In short, introverts might identify more keenly with the quieter, viewpoint people in real life, but these sorts of people don’t make for the most interesting fictional characters. Exception being: If the quiet character is plunged into a super interesting world or situation.

But if we’re writing a story using a viewpoint character as introverted best friend (a not-so-secret proxy for ourselves), then we need to know we’re doing this. If the most interesting character in your story doesn’t have a fully realised character arc, that could be a problem for readers.

Comfortable But Passive Scenes

Another issue which may or may not be related to introversion (I suspect it’s also related to age, gender and writing experience): Boring sitting-down-drinking-tea scenes. I wrote about that last week in my analysis of The Cat Returns. Some tea-drinking scenes are almost culturally compulsory, as in anime out of Japan, but The Cat Returns writers get around this by combining a static tea-drinking scene with slapstick action and witty dialogue.

These passive scenes often crop up as a Chapter Two. Most of us have done it, I’m sure:

  • Chapter One is an action scene with witty dialogue and an interesting situation. We use every tool in our belt to hook the readers in.
  • But then we need to introduce the family. So we show the character at home.
  • Maybe the character sits down to watch TV or makes a cup of coffee or goes out the back for a smoke with a cop colleague.

I’m not sure if introverts are more likely to write these passive and safe Chapter Twos, but I do think introverts are more comfortable in these scenarios in real life. So it’s probably tempting for us to take an emotional break — as writers — by rescuing our main characters and letting them enjoy a cuppa in peace before moving onto the next uncomfortable situation. But that’s not what will keep readers turning the page. Not even introverted readers, many of whom apparently like The Walking Dead! (One action scene after another, judging from the season I endured.)

Tea Drinking Scenes are sometimes necessary when writing realism, and I’m not advocating for getting rid of them at all. An example of a Tea Drinking Scene fraught with tension and quiet conflict can be seen in “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” by Alice Munro. Even the objects in the kitchen are described in dramatic terms.

Films are all about dialogue. It’s not inherently interesting to watch character sit around and talk, so filmmakers have an arsenal of tricks up their sleeve. Some of them are described in this video.

EXTRAVERTED WRITER PROBLEMS

Too Much Excitement

I can’t identify with extraversion problems myself, but here’s one for consideration: If extraverted writers are indeed drawn to excitement, it may be the more extraverted writers who propel their readers into sturm und drang before setting up the main character’s psychology (weakness/need/desire).

It may be extraverted writers who forget to juxtapose action and dialogue heavy scenes against the quieter ones, allowing the reader to take a breather and to offer a change in tone.

 

What do you think?