These are the words of the Canadian, 2013 Nobel prize-winning author, Alice Munro.
At Christmas, I received two collections of her short stories and have since been awe-struck by her writing. One notable feature of her writing may be worth rehearsing here. It concerns the intriguing relationship between photographs and writing – a rich seam, much mined by writing groups (cf Writing from photos).
Munro sometimes uses photographs to punctuate her prose with starting points for interrogating and ‘tackling the experience of being alive’. She uses descriptions of photos to echo and foreshadow, to reinforce character traits, and to ask occasional questions about her narrators’ reliability. In ‘Something I’ve been meaning to tell you’ (1972), Munro uses a childhood photograph of Et and her beautiful sister, Char, to flash back to early signs and scenes of character differences, the consequences of which are explored in the story. (No spoiler here: you must read it!)
In ‘Winter Wind’ (1972), the girl narrator has to shelter and stay in her grandmother’s house. It is very different from her own, and it contains an old family photograph of when her grandmother was a child:
The parents are seated. The mother firm and unsmiling, in a black silk dress, hair scanty and centre-parted, eyes bulging and faded. The father handsome still, bearded, hand-on-knee, patriarchal. A bit of Irish acting here, a relishing of the part, which he might as well relish as he cannot now escape it? When young he was popular in taverns; even after his children were born he had the name of a drinker, a great celebrator. But he gave up those ways, he turned his back on his friends and brought his family here to take up land in the newly opened Huron Tract. This photograph was the sign and record of his achievement: respectability, moderate prosperity, mollified wife in a black silk dress, the well-turned out tall daughters.
Munro exposes how personal and family secrets have a habit of unravelling, and for that purpose she deliberately chops up chronological sequence – as here where we are given an insight behind the scenes to the great-grandfather’s less respectable past . Munro’s narrative perspective is always on the move: she allows us to see life through the eyes of different characters at different stages of their lives, and she often prefers conditional phrasing to anything too definitive, composing sentences which adjust the ones that came before. Indeed the sense of the last sentence quoted above is immediately qualified with the first sentence of the next paragraph :
Though as a matter of fact their dresses look frightful; flouncy and countrified.
(see these paragraphs in context)
Photos are always, of course, intriguing stills from a longer story, which may then be recalled, distorted or imagined. Furthermore, the mere survival, by whatever accident, of certain photographs in family collections, can lend them an iconic status.
There is a distinctively fruitful relationship between photographs and writing. There is an interplay of still and moving images in both – catching from the continuous flow of time a single moment, and releasing it in another time to another person – even if that other person is an older self. In that sense both photography and writing both stem from reflection and feed it.
Over the holiday (now a fading memory), different branches of my family met in different permutations. Stories were told, illustrated by photos; and, of course, new photos were taken. Old photo albums were pored over – and these in turn provoked questions, conversation – and further stories. We were, I suppose, 'tackling the experience of being alive as best we could'.
We replayed the voices of those photographed people(“Ee – it’s nothing really.”) and heard what others said (“That’s a forced smile, if ever I saw one!”).
Close inspection of our photos revealed the former lives of objects, as well as relatives (“We’ve still got those chairs in the garage!”). They also contained enigmas and puzzles – things that only seem surprising in hindsight (“Who’d have thought that he’d end up in Thailand?”).
Ian McEwan observes something similar when he speculates about the future reception of current snapshots:
“It is photography itself that creates the illusion of innocence (and, one might add, of truth). Its ironies of frozen narrative lend to its subjects an apparent unawareness that they will change or die. It is the future they are innocent of. Fifty years on we look at them with the godly knowledge of how they turned out after all - who they married, the date of their death - with no thought for who will one day be holding photographs of us.”
― Ian McEwan, Black Dogs
Aha! The omniscient narrator! But Munro’s writing is more nuanced and provisional than that – a characteristic worth emulating and practising – keeping to the particular, describing carefully, suspending judgement - if not deferring entirely to your reader. Showing, not telling.
“ ... every time you try to write something, you’re breaking through and you have to have faith in yourself. If you went around recognising your limitations you just wouldn’t try at all.”
Now there’s a warning for all those over-dependent on writing objectives! They may not help everyone 'tackle the experience of being alive as best they can'. They may put a strait-jacket on your response. They may not help you write.
NWP blog 22.1.2016