How you read, Alice Munro writes, and war comes home


Here are three of the five items on today’s edition of my semi-regular “Read 2 of these and call me in the morning” mailing.

The life, death, and resurrection of Alice Munro’s stories. By Alice Munro. I’m having a delicious time reading Munro’s Selected Stories, 1968–1994 (Vintage, 1997), which I picked up a couple weeks ago while browsing a used bookstore in San Francisco. One exquisitely wrought tale after another. But the book is worth the price just for the introduction, where she talks about how she works and how some of the stories came together. Here, having written about beginnings, she writes about endings (to first full drafts) and what they reveal, or not, about whether the story is really done.

[Beginnings are] the easy part. Endings are another matter. When I’ve shaped 4the story in my head, before starting to put it on paper, it has, of course, an ending. Often this ending will stay in place right through the first draft. Sometimes it stays in place for good. Sometimes not. The story, in the first draft, has put on rough but adequate clothes, it is “finished” and might be thought to need no more than a lot of technical adjustments, some tightening here and expanding there, and the slipping in of some telling dialogue and chopping away of flabby modifiers. It’s then, in fact, that the story is in the greatest danger of losing its life, of appearing so hopelessly misbegotten that my only relief comes from abandoning it. It doesn’t do enough. It does what I intended, but it turns out that my intention was all wrong. Quite often I decide to give up on it. (This was the point at which, in my early days as as a writer, I did just chuck everything out and get started on something absolutely new.) And now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur. I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though i should be used to them. I’m no good at letting go. I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth. i go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem. Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this.

A big relief, then, Renewed energy. Resurrection.

Except that it isn’t the right way. Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard. new angles are introduced, minor characters brought center stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake. Out they go. But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out. i know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.

Reading is all about association. Nancy Andreasen on association cortices, “Secrets of the Creative Brain,” The Atlantic.

[T]he most extensively developed regions in the human brain are known as association cortices. These regions help us interpret and make use of the specialized information collected by the primary visual, auditory, sensory, and motor regions. For example, as you read these words on a page or a screen, they register as black lines on a white background in your primary visual cortex. If the process stopped at that point, you wouldn’t be reading at all. To read, your brain, through miraculously complex processes that scientists are still figuring out, needs to forward those black letters on to association-cortex regions such as the angular gyrus, so that meaning is attached to them; and then on to language-association regions in the temporal lobes, so that the words are connected not only to one another but also to their associated memories and given richer meanings.

You just did all that.

The things they carry home. By Thomas Gibbons-Neff at The Washington Post.

Even on the short overnight ops, sometimes we talked about things we knew we’d carry home. On a cold night in March 2010, Jeff brought up the kid he’d shot a month earlier, when the battle for the Afghan city of Marja was hot and there was no shortage of 15-year-olds picking up Kalashnikovs off the ground. Jeff had killed one of them with four shots from a heavy-caliber semi-auto that made a soft thud when the bolt released. The kid had a rifle, and even kids with rifles can kill Marines, Jeff had figured.

A few weeks later, we were on the side of the road watching for Taliban fighters digging bombs into the ground, and Jeff was telling me about it. He described the way the kid fell and how he wasn’t sure he’d done the right thing.

That was five years ago.

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