A fitting Thanksgiving gift

Helga’s Post #53:

“What if people really did that – sent their love through the mail to get rid of it? What would it be that they sent? A box of chocolates with centers like the yolks of turkey eggs. A mud doll with hollow eye sockets. A heap of roses slightly more fragrant than rotten. A package wrapped in bloody newspaper that nobody would want to open.”

I wished I could claim that I wrote that… Can you guess who did?

Every week I plan to write a blog post that relates to my own writing, to make it a bit more personal. But in the last two  weeks some news intervened that prompted me to write about those instead. News about the passing of famous author Tom Clancy a week ago, and just yesterday some happier news: a Canadian has won a most prestigious award. I can’t possibly write and rant about myself when something that important has just taken place. Something important for the world of writers and lovers of great stories.

Twitter is abuzz: A Canadian writer won an award. And not just any award.

Alice Munro, raised in small-town Ontario, the renowned Canadian short-story writer whose visceral work explores the tangled relationships between men and women, small-town existence and the fallibility of memory, won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Canada's first Nobel laureate. Photograph: Paul Hawthorne/AP

Canada’s first Nobel laureate. Photograph: Paul Hawthorne/AP

82-year-old Munro, whose books include Dear Life and Dance of the Happy Shades, is only the 13th woman to win the prize since its inception in 1901. She shares the award with past literary giants such as Rudyard Kipling, Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway.

Munro, who began writing in her teenage years, published her first story, The Dimensions of a Shadow, at age 19. She said she knew early on that she wanted to be a writer. Prestigious awards followed in spades. She won The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the National Book Critics Circle prize for Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and is a three-time winner of Canada’s Governor General’s prize. In 2009, she won the Man Booker International Prize for her entire body of work.

But she downplayed her achievements. “I think maybe I was successful in doing this because I didn’t have any other talents,” she once said in an interview. And, on the subject of being a short-story writer: “I used to feel for years and years and years that I was very remiss not to have written a novel and I would question people who wrote novels and try to find out how they did it and how they had got past page 30. Then, with the approach of old age, I began to just think: “Well, lucky I can do anything at all.”

Bestselling author Jeffrey Eugenides had this to say about the award: “People talk about Munro being a “master of the short-story form.’’ But she didn’t master the form so much as re-create it. Her traditional-seeming stories are anything but. She’ll shift multiple points of view or time schemes — hair-raisingly complicated stuff — not to show off formally but to find a means of packing her stories with maximum density. She’s the most savage writer I’ve ever read, also the most tender, the most honest, the most perceptive. This is one of those years where no one can complain about the Nobel Committee’s choice.”

I have to admit, I wasn’t a fan of her writing in my earlier years. Nothing ever happened in those stories, I thought. It’s not that I want a murder or a shooting in every book I read, but at least I need some drama and suspense.

Fast forward to the time I started writing myself. Suddenly I was reading Munro’s work differently. I slowed down, in no hurry to turn the page. I started to savor the words like sipping a precious garnet wine from a crystal goblet. I started to admire and love her dialogue, her character development, and what she conveyed between the lines without the need for words. She got seriously into my head through her characters. They lodged themselves there, refusing to leave.

Writers can learn so much from Alice, regardless of the genre. Her style of writing could work equally well in a literate novel, a mystery, thriller, or historical saga. Whether it’s her description of detail – perfect examples of ‘show, don’t tell’ – or her settings, but especially the relationships between her characters. All grist for the mill for my own writing.

I thought it might be interesting to show an example of how deftly she describes her characters. Note how she manages to describe her emotions through seemingly unimportant details, and how she paints a picture of this particular time in history. The excerpt is from an experience she had as a ten year-old child: a fleeting wartime encounter with a prostitute. The writing also shows more than a glimpse of her relationship with her mother, without so much as ‘telling’ the reader.

“My mother’s dress was not homemade. It was her best, too elegant for church and too festive for a funeral, and so hardly ever worn. It was made of black velvet, with sleeves to the elbows, and a high neckline. The wonderful thing about it was a proliferation of tiny beads, gold and silver and various colors, sewn all over the bodice and catching the light, changing whenever she moved or only breathed. She had braided her hair, which was still mostly black, then pinned it in a tight coronet on top of her head. If she had been anybody else but my mother I would have thought her thrillingly handsome.

(My comment: I love how that shows her feelings for her mother)

There was a woman in that room you couldn’t help noticing, one whose dress would certainly put my mother’s in the shade. She must have been quite a bit older than my mother — her hair was white, and worn in a smooth sophisticated arrangement of what were called marcelled waves, close to her scalp. She was a large person with noble shoulders and broad hips, and she was wearing a dress of golden-orange taffeta, cut with a rather low square neck and a skirt that just covered her knees. Her short sleeves held her arms tightly and the flesh on them was heavy and smooth and white, like lard.

This was a startling sight. I would not have thought it possible that somebody could look both old and polished, both heavy and graceful, bold as brass and yet mightily dignified. You could have called her brazen, and perhaps my mother later did —that was her sort of word. Someone better disposed might have said, stately. She didn’t really show off, except in the whole style and color of the dress.”

So, while nothing really happens  in these three paragraphs, you can feel the tension, and even foreboding of something about to happen that would change the narrator in some way. I would love to use some of these techniques in my own writing. I realize it’s a tall order trying to emulate the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature!.

Then again, standing on the shoulders of distinguished authors is how we become better writers.

Congratulations, Alice. You’ve made Canada proud. What a beautiful gift just in time for Thanksgiving.

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4 thoughts on “A fitting Thanksgiving gift

  1. Helga, your vision of sending love through the mail is disgusting–ly right on the mark! Too much! Love your imagination!

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