Alice Munro does not have an MFA degree. She comes from a time when few Americans, and even fewer Canadians, found it necessary or expedient to pursue graduate study in creative writing. Though Munro was not produced by the MFA culture, she has been embraced by it to an extent unparalleled by any other living writer. When I visited the MFA program where I eventually enrolled, I was only a minute or two into a conversation with a second-year student when he asked, “Do you love Alice Munro?” Before I could answer, he added, “Because everybody here really loves Alice Munro.” It was true. One professor diagrammed the craft of Munro’s stories on a wipe board, using a complex notation of cylinders and arrows I struggled to understand. In another workshop, each student was required to choose a story from Munro’s Selected Stories and introduce it to the class. (I picked “The Turkey Season” and was impressed by the easy, unforced rhythms of the dialogue, though I don’t remember noticing much else.) Last Thursday, when the Nobel Prize was announced, the euphoria among my writer friends and acquaintances was palpable. There seemed to be a common feeling that Munro was ours, a writer’s writer uniquely beloved by the workshop.
When I began teaching, I couldn’t miss the fact that excerpts from Munro’s stories were used to illustrate almost every principle of craft. In the textbook most commonly assigned in introductory fiction classes, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, she is cited in the sections on effective use of subtext in dialogue, on how to move over long spaces of time in summary, and on revision. No other writer — with the possible exception of Chekhov, to whom she is often compared — seems to have this universal applicability. It would be possible, one imagines, to read a Munro collection as certain people read the Bible, opening the book at random and sticking a pin down on the page. Surely you couldn’t fail to come up with a passage that would illuminate your own understanding of technique, and do it in a style that seemed both accessible and effortless. In those early years, I dutifully taught and studied Munro’s stories, but when I wanted to reread a story for the sheer pleasure of it, I went not to The Beggar Maid but to Junot Diaz’s Drown, or to Selected Stories of Andre Dubus. I appreciated Munro, I respected her, but — as we’ve all surely learned by our mid-twenties — that’s not the same as being in love.
We live in an era when North American readers are increasingly well-versed in the language of the writer’s craft. Book reviews in the New York Times and other major venues routinely focus in on questions of delineation of character and the construction of sentences. Tens of thousands of undergraduate students enroll in creative writing classes every semester, and the database maintained by Poets & Writers currently lists two hundred and three graduate programs offering the MFA degree. Studies of the institutionalization of creative writing by scholars like D.G. Myers and Mark McGurl claim that the examination of technique is a secondary function of a writing program whose real purpose is to coach students through the labor of self-expression, but the widespread fascination with the minutiae of Munro’s craft would seem to indicate otherwise. The joyful reaction to the news of Munro’s Nobel among American writers and readers of literary fiction has to have something to do with the fact that we understand, or think we understand, how she does what she does. One doesn’t have to look far for an analogy: I like listening to Gil Shaham play the violin, but I’d probably like it even better if I knew a fingerboard from a pegbox. Reading Munro, noticing an abrupt but somehow perfect ending to a scene, an Austenian moment of indirect discourse, we must be getting smarter even as we enjoy ourselves.
As a teacher, I went back again and again to her stories, gaining through rereading an appreciation of the subtler aspects of her craft. Joan Silber, author of As Long As It Takes: The Art of Time in Fiction, praises Munro for her use of what she calls “Switchback Time,” “a zigzag movement back and forth among time frames…us[ing] the shifts in an order that doesn’t give dominance to a particular time.” Often we move back and forth between the end and beginning of an affair, a marriage, a life, until the two narratives come to possess equal weight and interest. Here Munro transgresses what I teach to my classes as a rule — that the present time of a story must be more interesting and carry more weight than the flashbacks — but does it in a way that can be explained and discussed, perhaps even imitated by anyone who has the courage to try it. I kept on studying her stories, and trying to share their unique brilliance with my students, even after I came to suspect that the author herself might not entirely approve of my efforts to interpret and explain her methods. The story “Differently” opens with a scene of an unsuccessful lesson on the craft of fiction:
Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.
Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed to be pleased with it. Georgia herself thought it was a fake. She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story. The instructor said that she expected too much, of herself and of the process, and that she was wearing him out.
Perhaps it is simplistic or wrong-headed of me to read this passage as Munro’s comment on the university study of creative writing. She would know better than anyone that a story must be a complete thing in itself, that one requiring an appendix has bigger problems than a lack of authenticity. And yet it is worth noting that she is not — like other writers beloved by the workshop; like Tim O’Brien, for instance, or Richard Ford — a staple of university reading series. She has never, as far as I have ever heard, taught in an MFA program as a visiting writer, or even flown in for a few days of readings and craft talks. Her use of what Silber calls Switchback Time could be seen as an infinitely more sophisticated version of Georgia’s appendix, an effort to put more into a short story than the form is supposed to be able to support. I suspect — though I may well be projecting — that Munro would find in the university-trained fiction writer’s obsession with craft in general and with her work in particular a kind of well-meaning naïveté, a dotty insistence on missing the point.
As I left my twenties and entered my second decade as a teacher of creative writing, I found that I could now answer my MFA classmate’s question in perfect sincerity: I loved Alice Munro. I loved her not because of Switchback Time or her ear-perfect dialogue, but because her stories had become part of my inner landscape. Like my favorite scenes in Austen and George Eliot, Cheever and Flannery O’Connor, these stories hold in retrospect the intensity of my own memories. If writing a poem is like living twice, reading Munro is like living over and over again, lifetime upon lifetime in the space of a single story. My deepened appreciation for her work may also have something to do with what I’ve experienced in what I think of in my non-literary life — marriage, motherhood, the loss of family and friends. I have an idea that she may be, like George Eliot, a writer better understood on the far side of thirty.
In the days since the announcement of her Nobel, as I walk around replaying scenes from Munro’s stories in my head, I’ve found that the passages that come back to me are not the teachable moments I’d point to in a class discussion, but snippets whose power and brilliance seems to elude my efforts at explication. The scene in “Save the Reaper” when a woman named Eve foolishly leads her young grandchildren into a nightmarishly strange house in an Ontario cornfield; or the climactic moment in “The Beggar Maid,” when Rose sees her ex-husband Patrick at an airport many years after their divorce and he greets her by making an ugly, hateful face. I could and did recite the final lines of that scene — Oh, Patrick could. Patrick could — but I couldn’t explain to anyone, least of all myself, why they lingered with me so powerfully. Those passages aren’t how I teach writing, but they’re why I wanted to be a writer, and a teacher, in the first place.
Years ago a friend of mine cautioned me to not to teach my classes like the Chris Farley Show, referencing the nineties-era SNL skit where Farley ineptly interviews artists that clearly impress him too much. Instead of asking Paul McCartney or Martin Scorcese questions about their careers, Farley summarizes important moments in their work and then tells them they were “pretty awesome.” Implicit in my friend’s advice was the idea that it was insufficient to simply praise a piece of writing for being unbelievably good. It wasn’t critical. It didn’t actually teach anybody anything. I believe he was right, for the most part, but when I think about the happiness that I and so many of my writer friends seemed to feel at the news of the Nobel, I wonder if what I need in my life is a little less craft and a little more Chris Farley. Instead of talking about how Munro does what she does, wouldn’t it feel good to just let the stories happen? Remember that one part in “The Albanian Virgin,” and “Runaway,” and “Friend of My Youth”? That was really great. That was pretty awesome.
Dear Writing Teacher,
How does a writer attach one scene to the next without saying “And then…”? I find myself stuck in one room or place forever because I can’t make the move to another place or time gracefully.
Languishing in the Parlor
I love this question because it’s about the mucky parts of writing that are more difficult than you expect them to be. It’s often these micro-level mechanics that slow a writer down, make her feel like she’s oiling the rusty joints of robots rather than conjuring and exploring the lives of real people with meaningful problems. Fluidity is what I long for, anyway, when I’m working; I want to feel like I’m “inside” of my own text, participating in its unfolding in a way that is intuitive, natural, and enjoyable. Being overly conscious of transitions gives me a distancing, jerky feeling that is the opposite of fluid. Ugh. Just, ugh.
The nice thing about writing is that there are many different approaches, and readers are cooperative creatures with nimble minds: teach them early on how you like to transition, and they’ll learn to dance to the beat of your rhythm.
In thinking about this question, I took a look at how authors of the books I’ve read recently dealt with this technical challenge. To keep this manageable, my examples look at transitions within a section, scene or passage, but you can extrapolate these lessons to work for scene-to-scene problems, too.
First, check out the opening of the svelte and lovely novel Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith:
Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably will never go.
As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at sea before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt’s with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in — the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafes and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right out of Elliot Bay, mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees.
She began collecting postcards of other cities: Paris, London, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Barcelona. She borrowed books from the library and watched old movies, just to get a glimpse of these other places. She imagined visiting them, walking the streets, sleeping in creaky beds in hostels, learning a few words of every language.
Now, this is summary, not scene, but it’s still instructive. Smith’s writing is crisp, somehow spare and lyrical at once, and throughout the novel it feels as if there’s something living beneath and beyond the sentences; implication runs deep. She’s pretty bold, I think, in the leaps she makes here: sometimes a paragraph break is all she needs to set off on a new idea, and she moves us into Isabel’s trip to Seattle with just a sentence. This passage ends here, and it’s followed by a space break. After this break she writes: “Isabel finds the postcard of Amsterdam on Thursday evening, at her favorite junk store, across from the food carts on Hawthorne.” The link between this and the last passage makes sense, but it’s subtle, and not explained outright.
Reading Glaciers reminded me that the movement between paragraphs can be surprising, and that space breaks can provide a useful exhale before you transition to a new time frame or narrative register. The trick is not to exploit such tools; once you’re done writing a draft, investigate your white-space, to make sure you aren’t purposefully gliding over a moment you’re too chicken-shit to write, and make sure your paragraphs have, if not a clear chain of events, at least an emotional and image-driven logic. It might help you to utilize this technique when you’re first getting a scene down: write what comes to you, and leave the muck of transitional sentences for later. It might turn out that you don’t need them.
Now let’s turn to the deliciously plotted and clever crime novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which dazzled me from its first sentence. Here are a few paragraphs from 15 pages in, the opening of a chapter that begins in scene.
I swung wide the door of my bar, slipped into darkness, and took my first real deep breath of the day, took in the smell of cigarettes and beer, the spice of a dribbled bourbon, the tang of old popcorn. There was only one customer in the bar, sitting by herself at the far, far end: an older woman named Sue who had come in every Thursday with her husband until he died three months back. Now she came alone every Thursday, never much for conversation, just sitting with a beer and a crossword, preserving ritual.
My sister was at work behind the bar, her hair pulled back in nerdy-girl barrettes, her arms pink as she dipped the beer glasses in and out of hot suds. Go is slender and strange-faced, which is not to say unattractive. Her features just take a moment to make sense: the broad jaw; the pinched, pretty nose; the dark globe eyes. If this were a period movie, a man would tilt back his fedora, whistle at the sight of her, and say, “Now, there’s a helluva broad!” The face of a ’30s screwball-movie queen doesn’t always translate in our pixie-princess times, but I know from our years together that men like my sister, a lot, which puts me in that strange brotherly realm of being both proud and weary.
“Do they still make pimento loaf?” she said by way of greeting, not looking up, just knowing it was me, and I felt the relief I usually felt when I saw her: Things might not be great, but things would be okay.
Now, what I get from this scene, aside from killer descriptions like “the spice of a dribbled bourbon,” is what Joan Silber, in her book The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes, calls “selective concreteness.” Flynn isn’t including every little thing that Nick encounters as he enters his bar, she’s giving us only the details that matter to him, and that direct our gaze to what’s important to the scene and the book as a whole; in this case, it’s Nick’s familiarity with this space, and his relationship to his twin sister. It’s also interesting that Sue, the widow, is mentioned, because at its heart, this is a novel about marriage and marital dysfunction. I also notice how seamlessly Flynn moves between action of the scene, background information, and opinion. She transitions in and out of the present action as easily as your own mind does: you’re engaging with the external world, then thinking about something, then back to the world, and so on. Here, Flynn uses the visual image of Go’s glass-washing arms to move us into a general description of Go’s looks. It seems natural because it is natural: Flynn is inside of Nick’s perspective, noticing and commenting on what he would notice and comment on. If you’re truly inhabiting character, then transitions often happen automatically. This passage is also a reminder that dialogue can be a great way to bring us back to a present moment, especially if you’ve moved away from the scene to provide exposition or a flashback.
If you’re ever stuck in a scene, I suggest opening a favorite book, and seeing how the writer handles the problem. Flip to a crisis moment in the story or novel, and see how the events move along, how the author transitions out of one tense situation and introduces something else. Emulating that same structure might help you find your own.
Here are some other exercises and tactics that come to mind:
1. Braiding Time
I found this exercise in Now Write! edited by Sherry Ellis. It was created by fiction writer and teacher Cai Emmons, and I could just kiss her it’s so good. Basically, you write a scene of a character alone. The first paragraph, the character is doing something pretty rote and ongoing (washing dishes, etc.); the second paragraph flings the character into the future, without losing sight of the present; the third paragraph flings the character into the past (also with the present as a jumping-off point). The final paragraph uses all three time frames, present, past and future. It’s a great exercise for learning how to handle a character’s interiority, while also anchoring the character to a present moment. Also, each paragraph forces a transition. If the four-paragraph structure feels constraining, that might be revealing: where do you naturally want to transition? Pay attention to that.
2. The List
A student just gave me this idea last night in class. If you’re having trouble moving through a scene, consider first jotting down a list of what is physically and sensually in the scene/experience. You know: the smell of popcorn and cigarettes, the sister behind the bar, the widow with her crossword puzzle. By writing this list, you might find the scene’s shape, which will make it easier to see the material more fully. From there, imagine the next scene that follows, and write a list for that scene. I’m not yet certain how this will help with transitions, but I’ve got a hunch it will. Sometimes my fear of transitions has more to do with not knowing my world than anything else.
3. Do the obvious
When I’m truly anxious that I’m about to make a fool of myself on the page, it helps to just dive into that foolishness. Go ahead and write “and then…” to connect one action to the next. Write, “All of a sudden…” Write, “Out of nowhere…” Write, “A little while later…” Why not? Once you have your characters on the page, you can go back and see if you need to rewrite, cut, or what.
4. Figure out pacing
My last piece of advice is to stop and ask yourself what the time frame of your narrative is. Transitions are most painful to me in novel writing, and I think this is because I am usually covering more time, and it’s hard (and scary) to express that passage on the page. If you know that your narrative is the type that can handle, say, “Three weeks went by,” then it might be easier for you to figure out how to progress forward. The pace at which my story develops tells me a lot about how I need to start chapters, move from one scene to the next, and so on. For many, this might be a second-draft question, but it could help you to start wondering about it now. What I’m saying is: Transitions might be the problem, or they might just be the symptom of a problem.
Okay, that’s all I’ve got for you today. Now I need to figure out how to transition from writing this to working on my novel revision. Any suggestions gladly accepted.
The Writing Teacher
Got a question? Send all queries about craft, technique, or the writing life to [email protected].
In his essay, “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals,” Richard Bausch protests the proliferation of instructional books about writing, and laments all those wanna-be authors who, rather than read novels or short stories, seek out books on how to write their own. He asserts, and rightly, “The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction.”
I never read how-to books on writing until I was faced with the prospect of teaching writing; before then, I simply read, period. The writers I loved (and even the writers I hated) taught me, indirectly, about writing. In a class of beginning writers, the ones with the strongest sense of storytelling and character, and with a grasp for prose that is vibrant and surprising, are often the ones who read voraciously, widely, and deeply. A good reader isn’t necessarily a good writer, but a good writer must be a good reader.
In the past few years, though, I have sought out some books and essays on craft and technique. I’ve found that some of these texts are useful for articulating the intuitive; it’s when I’m having trouble with my work–or, more likely, wrestling with my manuscript in revision–that explicit instruction has led me out of whatever hole I’ve dug myself into. I haven’t read the kinds of how-to manuals Bausch rejects; I prefer the books that deal with “the aesthetics of task,” as he puts it. I’ve read and enjoyed–and, sometimes, enjoyed disagreeing with–such books. I’ve also enjoyed, in preparing a lesson for an introductory course, going back to the basics. It reminds me of taking a ballet class for non-dancers; as someone who studied ballet for years (never seriously, mind you), the painstaking review of the plié can be illuminating. After all, it’s the step that allows the dancer to do everything else. One just has to remember that learning to plié spectacularly won’t make one a spectacular dancer–or even a dancer. There’s technique, but there’s also passion, soul, grace, daring.
There are a few books on writing that I’ve not only been useful for teaching, but also inspiring and instructional to me personally. They have me thinking deeply not only as a writer, but as a reader, too; perhaps that’s the difference between such texts and the ones Bausch rejects. Aside from the usual suspects–The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, for instance, or Mysteries and Manners by Flannery O’Connor–here are some of my favorite books on craft:
How Fiction Works by James Wood provides an excellent explication and appreciation of the free indirect style, or, as I prefer to call it, the close third person. The third person is the trickiest of points of view, in my opinion, for it can vacillate wildly in terms of distance from the character(s); Wood’s way of describing a close relationship between narrator and character makes this one approach to point of view easy to understand without stripping it of its complexity. I also love the short chapter breaks–often only a couple of sentences long. They’re pleasurable to read.
Now Write!, edited by Sherry Ellis, isn’t a book on craft at all, but, rather, an anthology of writing exercises from writers like Dan Chaon, Alexander Chee, and Jayne Anne Phillips, among many others. I use this book all the time when assigning shorter pieces to my students. I’ve also recommended it to students who want to keep up a regular practice of writing without the pressure of working on a longer, self-designed project. A couple exercises a week–from “Why I Stole It” by Robert Anthony Siegel, to “The Photograph” by Jill McCorkle–will hone anyone’s powers of imagination and description. I’ve done these exercises along with my students, and they remind me that writing without a final product in mind can open new avenues, and introduce me to characters and story lines I heretofore might not have entertained. This kind of writing feels as fun as reading.
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with The Art of series, edited by Charles Baxter and published by Graywolf Press. In each slim volume, a notable writer examines one element of writing from a craft perspective. Baxter’s own volume, The Art of Subtext, explores plot and scene without reducing them to formula, without turning fictional characters into pawns on a chessboard. He manages to discuss character desire and motivation in a way that doesn’t make me think of overly-simplistic screenwriting rules. My class had a great time discussing Baxter’s analysis of the great J.F. Powers story “The Valiant Woman,” which introduced many in the room to an oft-overlooked writer.
I’ve recently been re-reading Joan Silber’s The Art of Time, discussed on this site by J.C. Sirott. One of the things I love about writing fiction is how I can play with time, compress it and expand it, and I love analyzing these approaches with my students. Is there nothing sexier than starting a paragraph with, “Five years passed”? Is there nothing juicier than crouching into a dramatic moment between two characters? Silber’s discussion of “selected concreteness” in The Great Gatsby is sharp, as is her examination of Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling.” Again, the reader in me delights, asks me to look again, and look more closely.
Lately, I’ve been reading the series’ books on poetry. A couple of weeks ago I assigned Mark Doty’s The Art of Description; what Doty says about poems and their capacities can be applied to fiction:
What descriptions–good ones, anyway–actually describe then is the consciousness, the mind, playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that’s doing the looking
If that’s not a new and beautiful way to articulate perspective and point of view, I don’t know what is.
I’ve also found a few essays on writing online, which I’ve taught with great results:
Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better,” an essay on voice and what it means to write well, informed my reading of Emma Donoghue’s Room (and my subsequent review). I find myself coming back to it, both in my own work, and in my teaching. The essay asks: What is voice and truth? What does it take to write well? How can one refine one’s consciousness?
William Boyd’s “Brief Encounters” is a succinct overview of the short story from the perspective of one of its best contemporary practitioners. I like his distinction between a event-plot story and the Chekhovian one.
Elizabeth Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel” is full of strong opinions, none of them supported with examples (She writes: “What about the idea that the function of action is to express the characters? This is wrong. The characters are there to provide the action.”). The piece is a series of declarations about the novel, and some of them wow me, some confuse me, and some leave me cold. Whatever the declaration, though, I admire Bowen’s confidence, and there are some nuggets of real genius here: “Nothing can happen nowhere” (when she’s discussing scene), and (regarding dialogue): “Speech is what characters do to each other.”
Now, I’d like to know–teachers, students, writers and readers–what are your favorite books on writing?
Literary awards please almost no one. As William Gass famously complained, “any award giving outfit is doomed to make mistakes and pass the masters by in silence.” Each year, nominees are announced and each year readers and critics love to grumble. The 2004 National Book Award Nominees for fiction, however, inspired a level of grousing rarely seen in the last decade.
Each nominee for the shortlist was a woman, and each woman lived in New York City. Immediately, both the mainstream press and the literary blogosphere started throwing about terms: Elitist. Insular. Sameness. The New York Times gleefully reported that none of the women nominated had sold more than 2,000 copies of their books and quoted the literary editor of The Atlantic as saying, “I thought this was a really weak year for fiction, but I still wouldn’t have guessed that any of these would have been strong contenders.” Major newspapers that had not reviewed the books attempted one-fell-swoop pieces in which they treated the five disparate works as some sort of literary quintet, complete with facile pronouncements about their collective shortcomings. Chairman of the judges panel Rick Moody took a good deal of criticism for imposing his aesthetic with too heavy a hand. Caryn James of the Times searched (and claimed to find) common links between all the nominees, writing: “all five are built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers’ program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good.”
Of course, this was a stretch. Five books by five women from the same city of eight million souls do not make for a uniform aesthetic. Anyone who reads one sentence written by 2004 nominee Christine Schutt, a former Gordon Lish acolyte known for her attention to the sonics of language, repetition, and rhythm as well as unusual and stunning verb choice will immediately see the folly of James’ claim. Joan Silber, another one of the five nominees has a strikingly different prose style, a much more straightforward and unadorned mode that could not be further from Schutt.
Lost in all the befuddlement about these relative unknowns and their supposed similarities were the actual merits of the books nominated. Among the crop of nominees was Joan Silber, nominated that year for her “ring of stories,” Ideas of Heaven, a work that explores the long-term impact that a single choice can have on a life. In every chapter/story, a Silber character is faced with a decision that takes decades to reveal its true repercussions, and often the actual impact of this decision will lie unrealized, producing subtle and destructive consequences for the rest of the character’s life. Whether Silber characters inhabit 16th century Italy or contemporary America, all of them are similarly preoccupied when it comes to life-choices and whether the passage of time allows for any sort of lesson at all when it comes to reflecting on the lives they have chosen (or been forced) to live.
In both Ideas of Heaven and her 2008 work, Size of the World, Silber utilizes nearly identical structures to portray the universality of this condition. Regardless of time period, Silber employs strikingly similar narrative voices for all of her characters, with few allowances for age or gender. In the same way that Silber’s characters from different countries and time periods have nearly identical emotional concerns, the consistency of voice in Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World is yet another Silber technique employed to demonstrate the shared humanity of these disparate characters in the most varied of circumstances.
What, you might wonder, is the “ring of stories” referred to in Ideas of Heaven? How is the ring related to the linked short story, the novel-in-stories, and the plain old-fashioned novel? Though there is no sport more boring and useless than literary classification, when Silber’s Ideas of Heaven is paired with Size of the World, one can see how little this question matters. (Even the author may not be the most authoritative in this case. In an interview with The Millions, Silber herself calls Ideas of Heaven “a hybrid between the novel and linked stories” and refers to the structure of Size of the World as simply, “this form.”) Billed on the front as “a novel,” Size of the World utilizes almost the exact same structure as Ideas of Heaven, the “ring of stories.” In both works, Silber has pioneered a distinct form, a crowd-told tale of multiple first person narrators, each chapter building on the next, but with each narrator’s story containing a dramatic structure traditionally associated with short fiction. In fact, chapters from both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World were published in journals and anthologies as standalone short stories. However, the Silber-applied “ring” in question likely refers to the fact that as the reader progresses through the work, the newer stories alter understanding of the earlier stories, until by the very end they have eventually circled back and all affected each other.
Silber utilizes passage of time like few of her contemporaries. Most interesting is Silber’s usage of what she herself calls, “long time.” In each story or chapter in Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven, decades pass, often in one sentence. “We went through all our savings, such as they were, in those five years in Ohio,” from Ideas of Heaven, or “In the third year we were together, the band had such a long dry spell that Randy got side work with a friend’s combo that did weddings and bar mitzvahs,” from Size of the World. But Silber’s “long time” is not merely about summary and exposition.
Silber herself has laid out the blueprint for how what exactly “long-time” is and how she accomplishes it in her craft book, The Art of Time in Fiction. Though ostensibly an exploration of how authors manage and explore time in their work, Silber glides over “classic time”, “slowed time” and others to get to the passage of time she clearly finds most engaging: long time.
The most consistent Silber technique in long time is to utilize habitual action as though it were a single event. Examples abound in every chapter or story in both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World as well as many of Silber’s earlier short stories. In Size of the World, Corrina, who eventually spends six years in what is then Siam, narrates her gradual comfort with the land around her:
My walks got longer, along the roads going inland, with paddies and forest on either side. Often I wanted to bring back a flower or a leafy stalk, but the stem were too fleshy to break, and I had a rational fear of sticking my hand in the foliage. I knew about snakes.
Silber discusses the benefits of this method in The Art of Time in Fiction, naming Flaubert and Chekhov as masters of this technique and claiming that “even in a story that leaps over long spans of time,” such a move allows for “the intimacy of the close gaze.”
Though other contemporary authors often deal with extended periods of time, few do so in the manner of Silber. Alice Munro, for instance, also often chronicles decades in the lives of her characters. Munro, however, utilizes shifting perspectives and frequently jumps forwards or backwards in time. Though Silber often credits Munro as a major influence, Silber’s work is much more constrained. Once a Silber character begins narrating a chapter or story, you can be sure that she will remain the sole narrator. In Munro, this is far less likely. Additionally, Munro is much more likely to experiment with tense, with stories completely told in present tense, (“Walker Brothers Cowboy”) or alternating between past and present (“Accident”). Silber characters all narrate their past from a usually undetermined later period in life. Where for Munro, time may be elastic, for Silber, time is guaranteed to be a linear progression that is difficult to make sense of. Though sole incidents often deeply affect Silber and Munro characters for the rest of their lives, the two authors differ in their illustrations of these effects. Unlike in Munro stories, a Silber character may think about the past, but they will never do it in scene.
Though the first person narrators who populate Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven are of distinct genders, nationalities, time periods, and generations, Silber uses the same technique of long time in each of the stories/chapters. Silber seems to utilize the long form in order to allow the weight of an action to fully inhabit its impact on the character. That is, time passes in Silber stories so the reader can fully understand the effect a seemingly unimportant decision or unforeseeable event (a car crash, a hurricane) can have on the rest of a character’s life. To truly demonstrate the impact of these events and how they change the character(s) in question, a good deal of time must pass.
Unlike Alice Munro and other contemporary authors, Silber rarely withholds information. Before a reader begins a story/chapter in Size of the World, a heading makes the reader aware of the narrator’s name, as well as an encompassing emotion that will be present in the story (envy, lust, paradise, loyalty, etc). In addition to her titles, Silber’s beginnings ground the reader immediately. For example, “Paradise” from Size of the World, begins as follows: “We moved to Florida in 1924, just as the land boom was taking off. We were not a young family—I was already twenty-one and my parents were in their forties and fifties.”
With assistance from the title, we already know from the first two sentences that our narrator’s name is Corrina, as well as her age, the time period, and geographic location.
A consistent Silber sub-theme within her explorations of time and its effects is uprootedness and migration. As time passes, Silber characters tend to repeat both the process of falling in love with a new place and being upended and wishing one was back in the place that was once unfriendly. This pattern is a constant in Size of the World as well as Ideas of Heaven. Even when Silber characters are unhappy with the geographic location in which they find themselves, they rarely find the place overwhelming for very long. If they do, they soon—via Silber’s habitual time rendered as scene—become acclimated in several paragraphs that may span years.
This is not to say that Silber characters are always happy where they are. Quite often, they would simply rather be elsewhere, or are visitors in the place that they call home. It is only the passage of time that dulls their sense of dislocation. Silber’s Annunziata, in Size of the World, uprooted from Sicily: “I didn’t really want to get better at knowing Hoboken, things—deep in my heart they didn’t interest me—but I learned them, inch by inch, in spite of myself.”
For Silber, the decades passing allow the reader to recognize the long-term impact of decisions on the characters. In her project of exploring the devastating or healing effects of time, Silber has created a rare formula, exploring very large questions through the tiniest and most specific of lives.