Breaking the Rules

While class preparation is severely cutting into my writing time, one of the benefits is that I’ve been more conscientious about applying some of these lessons to my own writing. I managed to write a new ending to the short story that I mentioned in my last post, and I’m pretty happy with it. I definitely integrated the plot arc into the ending, so I think it’ll be far more satisfying (my wife seemed to think so, but she might be biased). I think I’ve also isolated what isn’t working in another story that I’ve been less bullish on by really taking a hard look at narrative tension and structure, so that’s next on the revision pile, and that’s all thanks to the prep I’ve done for this class. Practice what you preach, I always just learned to say.

Tomorrow night, I’ll be teaching Alice Munro’s “Train,” which first appeared in Harper’s for my Foundations of Fiction class. Our craft discussion topic for the evening is time and place, and this story is a fantastic one for a conversation about time in stories. Munro’s story takes place over a twenty year period, not counting the various flashbacks. The fluid nature of time is something Munro references in the story in a line about Belle: “Her talk reinforced this impression, jumping back and forth, into the past and out again, so that it seemed she made no difference between their last trip to town and the last movie she had seen with her mother and father…” Indeed, one of the themes of this story seems to be that the swift and relentless passage of time does little to change a person’s nature.

It’s a really deeply layered story, and like many of the Alice Munro stories I’ve read, takes my initial impressions from the first page or so and tosses them aside, surprising me with twists and turns that I wouldn’t call shocking, but rather masterfully manipulative (in a good way). And one of the ways she does this is by breaking all the rules I’ve been trying to teach. For example, this story starts off in present tense, as Jackson is jumping off a train as it slows to take a curve. And it stays in present tense for exactly seven paragraphs before switching to the past tense for the next 29 pages. The story starts with an omniscient POV; we get narrative from Belle’s perspective, Jackson’s perspective, even the cow’s for a few lines. But after a few pages, the POV settles into a limited 3rd person close to Jackson. I might tell students that a short story will typically cover a very finite period of time, yet there’s probably a 50-year span in this one and it works marvelously.

If Alice Munro were one of my students or in my workshop, I’d pull out the old red pen and mark “inconsistent POV” or “change of tense” or the like. I might complain about the narrative distance when [spoiler alert] Jackson abruptly leaves the hospital to take a job as a super at an apartment building. But who am I to correct a Nobel Prize winner? I think the lesson here is that when you break the rules you must have a sure hand in doing it.

I’m not much of a rule breaker in my own writing. I even balk at the more-and-more-common tactic of abandoning quotation marks for dialogue. But between this story and Saunders’ “Tenth of December” which I taught last week, I’m starting to feel tempted to give it a whirl. It’s probably going to be a train wreck (forgive me), but I wasn’t much good at coloring within the lines as a child, so maybe it’ll feel more natural than I expect.

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