How Alice Munro’s “Runaway” Reminded me About Sentences


Unsolicited Opinions / Friday, September 21st, 2018

I would like to write a very strongly-worded letter to every institution of higher education I’ve ever attended and ask them why I’ve never been made to read Alice Munro.

It’s a name I’ve heard, for sure. I worked at an independent bookstore for five years (my longest held employment – go figure) and patrons would generate a mellow buzz whenever she released a new collection. I was always like, okay, sure, whatever. But everyone’s response to her was so calm, so guardedly enthusiastic, that I never considered investing my time in reading her works.

Which leads to this past week, when I was looking for a little short story escapism. By happenstance (i.e. aggressive browsing),  I stumbled upon Alice Munro’s short story “Runaway.” available here! Free! In the New Yorker! (Who I’m a little mad at bc I’ve used all my free articles this month so I can’t go back and confirm my notes which makes me huffy. I guess it’s their right to expect payment from readers, but whatever I’m pissed.)

I’m going to step in for every authoritative literary figure in your life who’s maybe let you down and say: please read this short story. Please give little old humble Nobel-prize winning Alice Munro a chance.

Up there with “Brokeback Mountain” and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I can say honestly that this short story was one of most affecting pieces I’ve read in the past six months. It’s really helping me re-think the way I approach scenes in my fiction. How, you ask? WELL, THANKS FOR ASKING. It all comes down to Alice Munro’s economical yet gorgeous sentences; her unadorned and purposeful descriptions; and her masterful synthesis of elements to create a cohesive whole. 

More than anything, her work encapsulates this quote from another master of fiction, Kurt Vonnegut (I’ve been in a real Vonnegut mood lately):

“Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.”

Throughout “Runaway,” Vonnegut’s edict really resonated. (I’m about to start quoting things willy-nilly, so if you’re afraid of spoilers, I recommend reading the story first!) As a refresher, “Runaway” focuses on an unhealthy marriage between Clark and Carla. Sylvia, their well-meaning neighbor, attempts to help Carla run away from the bad situation. By the end of the story, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of the three major characters. Plus the goat. You’ll see.

Anyway, let’s look at an example of Munro’s amazing Purposeful Paragraph, this one offering exposition and characterization of Clark:

“On the Web, right now, he was hunting for a place to buy roofing. Some salvage outlet, with prices that they could afford, or somebody trying to get rid of such material, secondhand. He would not go to Hy and Robert Buckley’s Building Supply in town, which he called Highway Robbers Buggery Supply, because he owed them money and had had a fight with them.”

 

Every piece of description in those sentences is important. Clark’s not searching on the web, he’s “hunting,” which highlights the predatory aspects of his characterization. In addition to revealing elements of character, that first sentence moves the story along, telling us readers that there’s a pressing need for roofing. In the story, the collapsed-roof-rainy-summer issue is a huge contributor to conflict and drama.

The second sentence outlines their financial insecurity neatly. The third sentence introduces a key concept: Clark is the type of person who starts fights with and alienates other people. Neat paragraph, right?

Really makes one wonder how much of one’s writing just goes towards beefing up one’s word count.

Sigh.

In a technical sense, I found Munro’s descriptions to be very economical and well thought out. In addition to providing  short & sweet word candy, her descriptions enrichen the reading experience and reveal more than just setting:

The sun was shining, as it had been for some time. At lunch, it had made the wineglasses sparkle. And there was enough of a wind blowing to lift the roadside grass, the flowering weeds, out of their drenched clumps. Summer clouds, not rain clouds, were scudding across the sky. The whole countryside was changing, shaking itself loose, into the true brightness of a July day. And as they sped along she didn’t see much trace of the recent past—no big puddles in the fields, showing where the seed had washed out, no miserable spindly cornstalks or lodged grain.

The previous descriptive paragraph describes the scene seen by Carla as she leaves the mobile home she shares with Clark. Munro obviously has a way of animating the elements with active and engaging verbs. The wind lifts the roadside grasses. The summer clouds scud across the sky and the countryside shakes itself loose. You can feel the movement, sense the potential for positive change. 

This description is not only beautiful. It also highlights the contrast between this sunny scene and Carla’s previous location: a rainy farm with spindly cornstalks and lodged grain. A place of stagnation, dreariness, and dashed hopes. And Clark.

Many beginning writers (myself totally included) tend to engage in descriptions as sort of a writing exercise, to see how closely we can get a scene to pop into our readers’ heads. After reading this short story, I’ve realized how important it is to weave the description in with the plot and characterization as the story. In good writing, words aren’t wasted. Everything is an element of story.

So, what’s my point? Nothing in Munro’s stories is purposeless. No breath is wasted, no opportunity lost. You find this at every level of the story, unearthing meanings both large and small.

The goat’s a good example of cohesion. If you’ve read the story, you’ll find that a goat named Flora has a major role. As the story progresses, climaxes, and ends, it becomes clear that Flora the goat is a stand-in for Carla. There are so many parallels between the goat and the woman throughout the story (running away and returning; following Clark around; Carla’s spoken identification with the animal, etc.).

This identification with Flora, established subtly and with minimal fuss throughout the story, becomes incredible important at the novel’s climax. Also, their similarities add an intense emphasis to the last few words of the story. (Which are, in classic Munro fashion, extraordinarily important to the story as a whole.)

In other words, nothing about the Flora subplot is wasted. It all contributes to the story and our understanding of Carla and Clark’s dynamic. There are more little things, keys and clues that synthesize the story nicely: the buzzards in the sky, Sylvia’s ability to find flowers in improbable spaces, the fence on their property, the crumbling roof, etc, etc.

And that’s why I ever-so-boldly said it before and I’ll say it again: in terms of style, “Runaway” is one of the most important things I’ve read all year. Weirdly. It’s really making me look at my own work with a more critical (like I could get more critical) eye.

And helping me sentence better.

7 Replies to “How Alice Munro’s “Runaway” Reminded me About Sentences”

  1. I love, love the idea of never wasting a word! Especially as our attention span’s legitimately get shorter, respecting readers’ time is only going to become more important.

    Also, I think goats are awesome; I wish I could run up vertical cliffs like them. I want a goat now.

    1. Goats are so rad.

      When I think of all the words I’ve wasted, I despair. But there’s nothing like going through a draft and cutting out everything that doesn’t matter (which is usually a lot.

      1. Did you know that goats discovered coffee?

        I mostly despair when I think of all the dollars I’ve wasted. I suppose the words are bad too, but in my case wasting dollars is related to wasting words.

        Also, random question: do you know how a completely inept and unqualified simpleton can best improve their writing? I’ve been looking around at creative nonfiction courses/programs to enroll in to learn how to write for reals, but I have neither the funds nor the prerequisites to get into any of them.

        1. I really want to know more about how goats discovered coffee.

          You are already a good writer, but I completely relate with the desire to become better : that’s the whole point of my blog! My advice is to read books on writing (original, I know) like The Elements of Style. And even though you’re more interested in creative non-fiction, I really enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Because whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, certain elements remain the same.

          I have no money for an MFA in English but I really want to improve my writing, so my weekly practice is to take a piece of writing I really admire – and analyze which pieces of it really work and resonate with me. You probably read a lot in the sciences and a lot of long-form articles; so the next time you’re reading, maybe take some notes on what aspects of the writer’s style work for you. Their figurative language? Their structuring? Their attention to detail?

          I like to read essays from the New Yorker and the Atlantic (until they catch on that I’ve read too many articles) for great examples of non fiction writing.

          I do think that, as a blogger, you’re already writing “for reals,” but I think it’s really cool you’re working to get even better!

          1. Haha, well the story goes that many years ago, a shepherd in what’s now Ethiopia noticed that his goats acted especially hyper after they ate the berries from a certain tree. He began to experiment with the berries, and eventually coffee was the end results. So yea, goats.

            I have no idea how the shepherd went from, “My goats like these berries” to, “I think I’ll dry them, roast the seeds, crush them into tiny pieces, and then steep them in boiling water” though.

            I’m a decent writer, but there’s much room for improvement. I think Stephen King recommended reading lots of books and writing every day to improve one’s writing? I think that, when I’m done with all this school stuff, I’ll make a point of reading lots of books that are known for being exceptionally well-written.

            I do read lots of scientific and long-form journalistic pieces, but I feel like those are corrupting my writing. By and large, academic writing – and I’d say most long-form journalism – just isn’t good. Conservation biology articles tend to be okay, because they’re short and to the point. But humanities and science journalism articles just go on and on and on, with little to no personality.

            I know I’ve said this a million times, but I still think the most well-written work I’ve come across is the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence’s eye for detail when describing the desert landscape and people he meets; his subtle use of humor; clever but sparing use of metaphor; and depth of emotion are incredible.

            Speaking of long-form journalism, I do like the Atlantic; I’m not too familiar with the New Yorker. But I’d like my writing to feel more like a memoir than journalism. I want it to be more personal, and I’ve no desire to hide behind the ‘expert’ mask.

            Eh, blog writing is okay. But it’s too rushed and compressed, which doesn’t leave much room for detail.

            Also, about MFA programs, here’s a list of Creative Writing ones. Some of the programs in the list are fully-funded:

            https://www.pw.org/content/2019_mfa_index_your_graduate_research_starts_here

          2. Thanks for the list! The whole going-back-to-school thing is unrealistic for me right now, but it’s good to know it’s always there if my situation changes. For now, I’ll just keep plodding along in my own way.

            I agree about most academic writing – sort of dry and difficult to follow (at least for me; I can’t handle boring writing).
            The best bit about those three books I recommended is that each of them IS a writing memoir. So in addition to giving actionable steps on making writing better, they show what a well-written memoir looks like.

            I also really, really like Bill Bryson for non-fiction/memoir/nature writing. He has an amazing sense of humor and he can convey a lot of facts without it being boring at all. One of my favorites of his is A Walk in the Woods, about his adventures on the Appalachian trail.

            Also, drinking my first cup of coffee for the day – thanks, goats!

          3. Yea, to be honest I’m not even sure if an MFA is the best way to improve one’s writing. Sure, you’ll get plenty of practice, but you’ll also be tightly controlled. Academia’s overemphasis on convention and hierarchy is a great way to kill creativity. How many of the truly great authors had MFA’s?

            After your introduction, I’m definitely going to check out Bill Bryson’s works; what you said about his style sounds exactly like how I want to be able to write one day.

            Hurray for goats and their penchant for eating random things!

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