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Becoming a Literary Citizen, Facing Munro

Sometimes a Lighthouse craft experience shows its great value after a bit of time has passed. Lauren Groff brought a lot of game to the Lighthouse Grotto last month. Since her visit, my writerly engines have put-putted along on the fuel of inspiration and literary compassion she emanated.

I had intended to use two blog posts to cover the goodness that flowed from the Groff Fly-By Writers’ weekend. I thought I would try to pluck several activities and gems from her two craft tribunals, Narrative Structure and the Art of Narrative Time to  provide practical advice and exercises for those Lighthouse members who weren’t able to attend the weekend. And then I let a lot of time pass after my first post, a hurried, enthusiastic summary of her teaching approach, the aura-stamp left on my notebook from her teacher vibe, if you will.

As I returned to my Groff notes recently, I realized that what I would like to say about the Groff visit two months after the fact is less about handy go-to practices, and more about literary citizenship, described pretty succinctly here and at Professor Cathy Day’s Literary Citizenship course blog.

Groff modeled wonderful literary citizenship during her craft talks. I use the term “literary citizenship” the way Cathy Day and Carolyn See’s Making A Literary Life have taught me to use it: as emerging writers, we are making the gestures to enter a community, and so we must observe healthy community citizenship practices, like subscribing to the literary journals we admire (lucky for us we have the Lighthouse library to help narrow that search down) buying books or at least discussing library books we read and enjoy, reviewing them if that’s our cup of tea, and writing “charming” notes to people in the writerly world, for no other reason than to connect. (The italics are winking at that practice of writing charming notes to get something from someone–a review, a blurb, a recommendation, a freebie, a job reference, etc. etc.) As Rebecca Rasmussen says:

Question: What is the secret to getting published?
Answer: Learn your craft, yes. But also, work to create a world in which literature can thrive and is valued.
Groff modeled one way to do this during her weekend at Lighthouse when she consistently showed where her literary lessons originated–in other writers’ works. This is a big piece of the generosity she demonstrated: generosity is not merely giving of self, but doing it in such a way that larger interconnectedness is revealed.
Just as Chris Castellani emphasized in his Craft Tribunal, “Words on Trial” back in March, Groff took pains to shine the light upon a good number of the role models in her literary and aesthetic tree.

Groff talked about Alice Munro a lot. This was not a new name for anyone in the audience. I’m sure most in the audience except me had read at least two Munro titles.

Alice Munro scares me. I admit that I tried not to read large chunks of the assigned Munro readings in grad school. I looked at her stories and I tried to let them in any way but via reading comprehension. I tried osmosis, I tried visual impressioning. The simplicity of the sentences, that all work toward a craggy, sure-footed understanding of people’s acceptance or non-acceptance of themselves was just too much for me to bear five or six years ago. Her sentence structure gave me chills, sort of like quiet animals sitting very still and staring at you from lampposts and benches and the very edge of the footpath–just close enough to be menacing, but still, technically not invading your space. Those glassy eyes.

Groff focused on Munro’s structure. She repeated several times how Munro’s stories feel like houses, and like houses, you can enter any section of the story and immediately know what psychic “room” you’re in. Lauren Groff gave me the courage to return to Alice Munro.

Munro has said this of her intentions:

I want the reader to feel something is astonishing. Not the ‘what happens,’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.

I turned to one story, “Face,” and then another–“Some Women” and then “Fiction.” And I found I could handle them, and what’s more, I craved them, one after another, like cutting piggy sized slices of my roommate’s homemade lemon meringue pie. And I found myself confronted with this notion of generosity again. The generosity of time and pacing that Munro has, which she in turn requires for full-submission to her stories. It’s a deceptive stillness. And a relationship of generosity between writer and reader that I wasn’t prepared to enter years ago, but for some reason I can now.

“And people as confident as Roxanne often seemed to get the better of me even if it was only by not listening.”


“The voice was a woman’s or girl’s, and it was bold and teasing all at once, so that you could almost feel this person was tickling you.”

both  from “Some Women,”  Too Much Happinessp. 179, 175

I can let her do it now, to tickle me–and it takes some willingness–a faith that she could be speaking to me, as well as to her countless other readers– to be seen by these sentences of people and circumstances that are very much in my world as much as they are in hers.

That’s kind of the point of being a citizen. To see and be seen.

3 comments on “Becoming a Literary Citizen, Facing Munro

  1. Cathy Day
    May 14, 2013

    Reblogged this on Literary Citizenship and commented:
    The essence of literary citizenship is to shine a light on others. Very happy to see that Alison Barker found her way to for this post for the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop. Very happy to be mentioned and shine a little light on Lighthouse. They do great things there.

  2. andreadupree
    May 15, 2013

    This is a lovely, smart piece, Alison. Thank you!

  3. Laurie
    May 19, 2013

    Inspiring! Munro is a favorite and also intimidating — so I see it’s not just me!

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This entry was posted on May 13, 2013 by in Member dispatches, Writing and tagged , , , , , .

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