reading like a writer–part 5: taking a story apart

Before I jump into the story, I’d just like to say that what follows are my notes–opinion not fact. And I hope to hear more opinions from you. Also, LONGEST POST EVER ALERT (I suggest a beverage of some sort, maybe a snack) and SPOILER ALERT:

Dimensions” by Alice Munro from her new collection, Too Much Happiness:

Type of story: journey

Type of beginning: starting the journey

Type of ending: stopping the journey

Point of View: On my first read, I thought it was third person limited to Doree, but on my second read, it appears that Munro actually moves briefly into the heads of two other characters: Mrs. Sands for a moment in the 3rd section (page 7 of the book) and Maggie for a moment in the 11th section (page 18). So the point of view is third person limited to one character at a time, and the main point of view character is Doree.

Distance at the beginning: The first few sentences (in fact the whole first paragraph with the exception of one sentence) seem distant, with Doree being observed which I think Munro starts with for three reasons: 1) because the gory subject matter to come needs distance to avoid melodrama; 2) so she can dip into the other two characters without jarring the reader; and 3) so the reader can look at Doree as separate from the reader because Doree does things the reader finds difficult to believe.

Structure: 31 pages>19 sections (marked only by white space, which Munro uses mainly to mark shifts in TIME )

[green =forward action/red=backstory/blue=Mrs. Sands/orange=Maggie]

1st section: Munro gets the story moving forward—literally and figuratively. We know something happened but we don’t know what—the unknowing adds tension and moves the story forward. And we have enough concrete details and action that we’re willing to wait for the “what.”

2nd section: Introduction of new character: Mrs. Sands (we guess she’s some sort of therapist and is “the reasonable person” to anchor the reader in the story). *[If you’re reading the story in The New Yorker, this section splits here creating 20 sections total instead of 19-I’m guessing she combined them in the later version to avoid 2 sections of backstory at the beginning.] Then a moment of backstory that starts when Doree meets Lloyd and clues us we’re going to lead up to what happened.

3rd section: Story moves forward again. Brief dip into Mrs. Sands POV. This section serves to reassure the reader that there is a story and that the character we just met is part of it.

4th section: Hunk of chronological backstory—the sure hand of storytelling.

5th section: Out of order backstory—I asked myself WHY? I’m guessing it serves to give the reader a little more information about what happened so we don’t get antagonistic. It also acts as foreshadowing and adds tension.

6th-10th sections: Chronological backstory with new character—the friend Maggie. Munro filters Doree’s reaction to the murders through Maggie (dips into M’s POV) to avoid melodrama. Also Munro needs the character of Maggie during these pre-Mrs. Sands scenes. (Maggie and Mrs. Sands are both “reasonable people” who arguably stand in for the reader. Including them and dipping briefly into their POV seem to be the equivalent of the story putting an arm around the reader.)

11th section: All the threads come together (red, blue, orange) for the “what happened” and then push past it.

11th-19th sections: The story moves forward from the “what happened,” with the continued appearance of Mrs. Sands as stand-in for normal as against Lloyd, which is the battle that is going on in Doree’s head.

12th: Doree’s INTERIOR THOUGHTS- she thinks back to being on the bus at the beginning of the story-no physical location of her body-and apparent continuation of interior thoughts in previous section-SO WHY DOES MUNRO SEPARATE THIS SHORT SECTION BY WHITE SPACE instead of adding it to the end of the section before?

  • I think to draw attention to Doree’s realization of getting off the bus as a possibility, which foreshadows the ending
  • And to highlight Doree thinking for herself
  • And to have the opportunity to mention “good or bad” twice
  • “When she realized what was in her head, she should have got off the bus. She could have got off even at the gates, with the few other women who plodded up the drive. She could have crossed the road and waited for the bus back to the city. Probably some people did that. They were going to make a visit and then decided not to. People probably did that all the time.”

18th: Munro pits Mrs. Sands against Lloyd (good versus evil & echo of the ”did it make you feel good or bad from sections 11 & 13 that bookend Doree beginning to think for herself in section 12)

  • “And who had given it to her? Not Mrs. Sands…”
  • “Lloyd had given it to her. Lloyd, that terrible person, that isolated and insane person.”

19th: The first line: “So she found herself travelling on the bus again…”

  • Lloyd versus Mrs. Sands: “Who but Lloyd would remember the children’s names now…Mrs. Sands…did not even call them children but ‘your family,’ putting them in one clump together.”
  • accident, bus stops, driver tells everyone to stay on the bus but Doree gets off “AS IF SHE HAD NOT HEARD THAT, OR HAD SOME SPECIAL RIGHT TO BE USEFUL, DOREE GOT OUT BEHIND HIM.”
  • Similarities between Doree’s children and the victim:
    • The driver refers to the victim as “kid”
    • Doree sees him: “The boy was lying on his back, arms and legs flung out, like somebody making an angel in the snow….He was so young…”
  • “Be quiet, be quiet, she wanted to tell them. It seemed to her that silence was necessary, that everything in the world outside the boy’s body had to concentrate, help it not to lose track of its duty to breathe.”
    • Echo of beginning of story with Doree not wanting to talk.
    • Also a bit of her taking charge, at least in her own mind
    • And these are words she could be saying to Lloyd and Mrs. Sands
    • I also see Doree as the boy here
  • Unusually beautiful sentence from Munro with echoes of the “journey” aspect of the story: “Shy but steady whiffs now, a sweet obedience in the chest. Keep on, keep on.”

The ending:

    “Go on,” Doree said. “I’ll hitch a ride to town with them and catch you on your way back tonight.”

    He had to bend to hear her. She spoke dismissively, without raising her head, as if she were the one whose breath was precious.

    “You sure?” he said.


    “You don’t have to get to London?”


About the ending:

  • The key to the meaning of the story can be found in the concrete: in the repetition of the word USE.
  • In the beginning of the story, there is death; in the end, life.
  • Despite all the ugliness of Lloyd, he is “useful” to Doree because that’s how she knows to breathe life into the victim.
  • Doree does not choose either Lloyd or Mrs. Sands but finds her own place in the world.
  • The reader “knows” Doree will not go back to Lloyd because she has found another reason to be in the w orld.
  • In a beautiful return to the game she played in #1, Doree makes the word “no” out of the word “London.”
  • Also by her not saying the last two words, only thinking them, there’s another return to section #1—Doree not wanting to talk to people.
  • She got off the bus. Her life has changed. Munro shows this in the quietest of ways.

So if this is NOT ENOUGH MUNRO for you, I actually made a simple, color-coded chart that just shows the movement of the threads, but I can’t figure out how to include it here. If you would like to see it, just request a copy in the comments section (no need to put your address in the comments) and I will email it to you.

Hallelujah I’m done!

Despite the fact that I’m done, this post does not exhaust the ways we can take apart this story. There’s still how Munro uses distance throughout (it changes), how she presents the different characters, how many times and why she repeats “three,”…….

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart

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reading like a writer–part 4: reading a story

Many of the stories in the new Alice Munro collection, Too Much Happiness, were first published in The New Yorker and are still available online. “Dimensions,” the first story in the collection, will be the story  I’ll take apart in the next post. You can read it here: Dimensions.

As an aside, the story was published in The New Yorker as “Dimension” and in the collection as “Dimensions.” Both the singular and the plural use of the word can be found in the story:

“But they do exist and it must be that there is another Dimension or maybe innumerable Dimensions….”

I think she changed the title to open the story up a little more.

I hope some of you will do this exercise with me so we can compare notes!

I’ll start us off:

Physical details

  • 31 pages
  • 19 unmarked sections
  • First sentence: “Doree had to take three buses—one to Kincardine, where she waited for the one to London, where she waited again for the city bus out to the facility.”
  • Last sentence: No.
  • Tense: past

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart

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reading like a writer–part 3: questions to ask

In an essay entitled “Artful Stealing” by Steven Schwartz in the current issue of “The Writer’s Chronicle,” he writes, “…you break into your own material by finding the key to someone else’s.” Each time I take a story apart, I’m adding to my knowledge of the possible ways to put a story together.

Here are the first questions I ask myself:

  1. What type of beginning is it?
  2. What type of ending is it?
  3. What type of story is it?
  4. What is its structure?

I answer these questions the best I can, using names that have meaning for me. The naming seems to makes the writer’s choice a concrete one, giving it shape, and making it visible. Other than that, there’s no magic to it. There’s just doing it. And I’m doing it so that the next time I sit down to consider my beginning or my ending, I’ll think what are my choices?

At the AWP Conference in Atlanta in 2007, there was a panel discussion on endings. To give you an idea of some of the names you can use as you take a story apart, here are some of the ones they used to describe endings: the barely there ending, the epilogue ending, the turns-on-an-event ending, the weird ending (seems to have nothing to do with the story yet actually reinforces the themes), and the Keystone cops ending.

There are, of course, a million more questions to ask. Here are some of the ones Douglas Glover mentioned in his lecture: (5)How many pages is the story? (6)How many sections does it have? (7) What does the white space signify? (8)What is the point of view? (9)What is repeated? (10)How many times is it repeated?

Each story may suggest slightly different questions, but I’m working on a list and/or a form to start with for each story. I hope to eventually have a notebook full of options. What was really important for me was to realize that this is a physical exercise.

It’s numbering the sections and seeing (11)when the characters are introduced, (12)when backstory is used, (13)when the story is moving forward.

The more I got into the story–the nuts and bolts–the more I learned something. And this surprised me. I thought I was getting it with some underlining and some circles and a few notes in the margins.

Learning how to write well is a process. I’m sure there are many ways to read like a writer. But “seeing how they did it,” as James Salter put it, is a way I can teach myself how to be a better writer.

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart

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reading like a writer–part 2: taking it to a new level

Like many of you, I feel that for some time now I’ve been reading like a writer. In other words, when I’m reading, I’m also noticing: tense shifts, point of view, use of time, distance between the narrator and the characters, the movement in and out of scenes…

In 1999 I was so amazed by Michael Cunningham‘s The Hours–its structure, its use of repetition–that I reread it in order see what he had done. I circled. I underlined. I used Excel and made a chart. I cited page numbers.

Recently at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, another student suggested I listen to the CD of a lecture given by Douglas Glover last summer on “How to Read Like a Writer.” In that lecture he said that to read like a writer, we should learn how to take a story apart. I thought, right, I know that.

But it wasn’t until a few days after that, when I actually took apart a couple of the Alice Munro stories in her new collection, Too Much Happiness, that I finally GOT how to read like a writer–or how to take reading like a writer to a new level–and how that could help me make choices when I was writing.

So the first time I read, I read for pleasure. I underline passages I like, and I notice what’s working and what’s not. Then the second time I read, I read to answer questions.

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart

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reading like a writer–part 1

Here’s another one of those odd coincidences: It was January of last year that I did a post on James Salter who wrote one of my favorite novels, Light Years, and who in July of 2004 at the Tin House Writers Workshop told the audience: “I don’t read for pleasure anymore. I read because I want to see how they did it.”

When I heard him say that and again when I wrote the post, I thought how sad.

Although I still think the idea of not reading for pleasure is sad, now I understand.

What they are doing and how they are doing it are two questions at the heart of how to read like a writer.

Writing this blog has made me a better writer because I have learned that just writing, “I like this sentence,” doesn’t tell my reader very much. What is it about the sentence that I like–its use of detail, its word choices, its rhythm? Still, my starting point is generally a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph that I underlined while I was reading.

I knew I was supposed to look at the books I liked to see how those writers were doing what they were doing so I could learn to do it too. I even developed a collection of books–fiction, not craft–that I refer to when I’m writing. I thought I was reading like a writer.

And I was, but I was just beginning to overturn the stones…

Other posts in this series:

Part 1: Reading like a writer

Part 2: Taking it to a new level

Part 3: Questions to ask

Part 4: Reading a story

Part 5: Taking a story apart

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the first residency

Thank you to everyone who’s asked what it was like going to my first residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I think it’s taken so long for me to write this post because, in addition to catching up with life and not getting behind on my work, I was a little too close to it all until today. It was a lot to get my head around, as the saying goes. The words of advice we most often heard were, “Pace yourselves. You can’t do it all.”

Monday, 12/28/09: First semester students arrive. I would be staying in a dorm, Dewey Hall. In my packet is the final schedule for the residency, something I would never want to be without for the next 10 days. The first meeting takes place after supper. First semester students of all ages (lots right out of college) appear to be choosing the low-residency format because it more closely resembles the life of a writer, and it allows for a life outside of school. Students are here to study fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction.

Tuesday, 12/29/09: Orientation continues with, among other things, visits to the library and getting our picture made for our student ID. Finally, the first substantive event, a faculty reading at 8:00 pm.

Wednesday, 12/30/09: No water in the entire town of Montpelier. A water main burst. Thank goodness I took a shower last night. First lecture at 10:00 by Ellen Lesser on the State of the Story. Students interview faculty at 11:15 to figure out who to request for an adviser. Takes place in a large room where each writer/teacher has a little spot and the students move about asking questions or listening. Think speed dating. First semester students choose eight, any of whom I’d be happy with. Workshops start after lunch, always two hours plus. Two writers/teachers with 12 students, a nice mix of all five classes (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and Graduates). Faculty readings. Student readings (I’m first!).

Thursday, New Year’s Eve: Yes, it’s true. I did ask why: lots of faculty and students have other jobs so VCFA tries to make use of all holidays. More lectures, readings, and workshops. A lecture by Natasha Saje on ways to evaluate literary texts. An auction to celebrate the new year.

Friday, New Year’s Day: I do attend the 9:00 am lecture by Robert Vivian on the wonder of the sentence. (I’m responsible for recording it!) In fact, this is a day full of lectures. No speaking required by students. A lecture by Laurie Alberts on 4 choices re time: real time, slow it down, speed it up, compress it. Adviser forms due today. More readings. The list of advisers and their assigned students is posted on the Noble bulletin board.

Saturday, 1/2/10: More lectures. Our first meeting with our advisers. This is a group meeting with the adviser and all his or her advisees. We receive the dates our packets will be due, what the packets will contain, and how to send them. Mine are due every four weeks by mail and should contain a letter/summary of my work over the four-week period, approximately 30 pages of fiction, and a 2-3 page critical analysis of some aspect of craft (just one of these, I think.) Workshops. A lecture by Larry Sutin on how we end up reading what we do in a lifetime. More readings.

Sunday, 1/3/10: Lectures and readings. David Jauss gives a lecture on abstractions (they are a short cut that asks the reader to do the hard part). My meeting with my adviser. We work on a reading list for the semester.

Monday, 1/4/10: Workshops, lectures, talks, and readings. A talent show.

Tuesday, 1/5/10: Lectures, talks, and readings. Jess Row gives a lecture on the fiction writer’s vocabulary (to be continued next residency). Meeting with Hunger Mountain editor, Miciah Bay Gault.

Wednesday, 1/6/10: Workshops and readings. Last lecture of the residency by Phyllis Barber (and last at VCFA for her-she’s retiring) on the craft of writing. Most lectures are not just good but outstanding, and I learn something from each one. This program is so the right thing for me to be doing.

Thursday, 1/7/10: Last workshop, last reading, and graduation. Lecture evaluations and semester study plans must be turned in before we leave.

Friday, 1/8/10: Travel day. My shuttle picks me up at 3:30 am(!) for a 6:00 am flight out of Burlington.

[you might also be interested in the second residency]

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At 10:15, this day appears to be another one of those where I feel like my right arm is going in one direction and my left in completely the opposite, the same with my legs, and my head just might explode. I want to do so many things ALL AT ONE TIME.

Each thing I do leads me not to an end but to a new beginning. Case in point: I post a comment and the reply comes with a question. I want to make a post but it turns out I really want to make four: on the frozen state of Columbus, Georgia; on the pictures I took in Vermont; on what I did in Vermont; and on how to read a story like a writer–how to take it apart.

So often on days like this, I end up frozen and accomplish nothing.

I remind myself, one thing at a time, one step at a time:

There’s something about the sound of water–the ocean, rain, the trickle of a fountain. We don’t live on the water, but a few years ago, we splurged on a fountain for the front yard. This is the way it’s looked ever since I got back from Vermont–frozen solid, a block of ice:


Columbus, Georgia, has had 11 consecutive days where the low was below freezing and the high has not exceeded 47 degrees.

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an equal stillness

An Equal Stillness, the debut novel by Francesca Kay, who grew up in South-east Asia and India and now lives in Oxford, was one of the best books I read in 2009. My review of this book is now online in Contrary Magazine‘s Winter Issue. An Equal Stillness also won the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers.

I imagine that the inspiration for the UK edition’s book cover came from this passage:

“In her great painting of that time, simply called Santiago, the foreground is a block of saffron broken by a line of deepest blue, above which is a band of blue that is even darker, so dark it might be black if it were not for the light contained in it which magically shines through.”

And a big thank you to all my readers: my stories–“Frosting” and “The Empty Armchair“–were both in Contrary Magazine‘s Top Ten Most Read Stories in 2009!

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filled up & emptied out

I lie down and get back up only minutes later. I close my eyes and then open them. I’m filled up and emptied out at the same time. Exhausted and yet energized.

I’m on my way home from Vermont College of Fine Arts after 8 days of a residency full of lectures on the wonder of the sentence and the state of the story. Readings of poems, stories, and creative nonfiction. New faces and new words. And more books and ideas and craft than I had when I arrived.

It was a winter wonder land.

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How We Spend Our Days: Abigail Thomas

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer … Continue reading