The Story of a Story

This essay was first published in First Person Plural, the blog of The Writer’s Center, on 19 July 2011

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I like telling stories. The first short story I presented in public was about making soup. It was also about being bombed. And because there’s not much you can do until the shelling stops and the soup’s ready, it was also about telling stories.

How “Making Soup” went from a single sentence my late mother tossed at me—she rarely felt the need to elaborate—to something that the storied TriQuarterly deemed fit to publish is itself a story. One centering on The Writer’s Center.

Having arrived at fiction writing late and sworn after an unconscionably lengthy pursuit of a doctorate never again to set foot in a conventional classroom, Nani Power’s Advanced Fiction workshop at the Center was exactly what I needed.

Nani was kind in critiquing “Making Soup.” Her primary concern was that the point of view—the narrator was a one-month-old infant—didn’t do my material justice. A fellow workshop participant, Dan Ryan, was far more blunt.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “Not unless you’re Alice Munro.” Then, recalling that that Munro had written a similar story—“My Mother’s Dream,” one I hadn’t yet read—he took time to locate it in The Love of a Good Woman.

I read it, word by word, line by line—Francine Prose would’ve been proud—and then researched what the author and others had to say about it. Turned out it was one of Munro’s favorites as well as one of the ones least liked by the critics.

Not only was that Munro’s story written from an infant’s perspective but it also challenged other conventions. I loved how she abruptly switched from the past to the present tense, instantly increasing the immediacy of a bygone event.

So my task became learning to write as well as the author with whom I shared a surname. Fortunately, Judith McCombs was starting a workshop on Alice Munro at the Center. I showed up with my manuscript in hand and an agenda in mind.

Somehow—it was clearly beyond the scope of the workshop—I induced Judith to read my short story. She pored over several drafts, using her fine poet’s eye to spot each vacuous word, each bland generalization I’d managed to slip in.

When I couldn’t look at the manuscript anymore, I submitted it to a Glimmer Train contest and placed as a finalist. That made me want to get published by the best. I set up a database of journals ranked by their 2010 Pushcart Prize scores.

After 20 electronic tries—going as far as licking stamps seemed excessive given the low probability of success—TriQuarterly accepted “Making Soup” for the Summer/Fall 2011 issue. The same journal once willing to take a chance on the early works of Joyce Carol Oates, Charles Baxter and Amy Hempel.

So it seems you can do that, even if you’re Ilse Munro. And you have people like those I had at The Writer’s Center to support you.

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ILSE MUNRO

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