A speech given at the O. Henry Awards Tribute to Alice Munro held at the
92nd St. Y in New York City, November 19, 2001.
by Alice Munro
I wrote my first story during the Easter holidays, when I was fifteen years old. I began to write it, in the back of a school notebook, in the unaccustomed silence of the house, on an afternoon when everybody else was out. I can remember the plot, and one or two phrases which I particularly liked, and am not going to reveal, now or ever. Before I started it I had been making use of the solitude to think about my novel. This was actually the third novel that I had worked out, and was carrying around in my head. The earlier two had been by this time discarded. The plot of this one was fully developed, the characters named, and decked out with their proper hair and eye colour. But I could not write a word about them. Not yet, I thought, but actually not ever. Too much was riding on their realization. It takes nerve, to write a novel.
So in the meantime, I thought, why not write a story. Just for practice, just to get myself in gear. Just whatever comes into my head. And I've been writing stories ever since.
It takes nerve to write a story, too.
To want to be a fiction writer, in the community where I grew up, and in the suburbs where I lived later, as a young housewife and mother, was such an outlandish notion that it never occurred to me to try to justify or explain it. I tried as much as I could to keep it secret. And at the same time, it never occurred to me to give it up, it never seemed possible that I would discard that hope--it seems more accurate to call it a hope, rather than an ambition--not even when the stories I wrote turned out to be limp or over-strained or in other ways--all ways--disappointing.
After a while I began to meet people who were better educated, more sophisticated than the people I was used to, and I learned about some other reasons why I should cease these efforts. One was that women resorted to such--usually second-rate--productions, because their wombs were inactive--in fact mine was very active--and another was that the short story as a literary form was dying or already dead. And Canadians couldn't write anyway.
There was another reason offered sometimes, which was more interesting, and which popped up just recently, in a discussion some writers were having on Canadian television. (I want to call them young writers but they were probably all over thirty.) The question they asked was something along the lines of, "Is it not irrelevant, is it not frivolous and self-indulgent, to be fooling around with stories and poems and novels, in the new world that exists after September 11th?"
When I first heard that argument, I believe it was "in the new world that exists after Auschwitz."
Well. I don't believe that it is irrelevant, or frivolous, or self-indulgent, because I don't believe that it is entirely a new world. The horror that has been recognized recently, in a new and vivid form, has been around in human dealings for a long time. And if a poem or a story has no place and no necessity now, no story or poem was ever necessary.
Yet we go on making them, caring about them, depending on them.
And because that is so, I'm particularly glad, as well as personally grateful to the O. Henry Awards Committee, that this evening's event is happening, and that it is happening in this place. A place which holds the memory of so many writers, a place in which writing has been given its due for so long, that the very thought of reading there, or of having one's work read there, has always seemed a high honour to me. It's like a link in a long chain of vital experience--an acknowledgement of what remains important or central to our lives, what we hope to preserve and never to be without.
So I want to thank you, all of you, for this evening, and to mention just a few of the New Yorkers who have been so helpful to me. Ginger Barber has worked hard for me, boosted and believed in me and given me the delight of her company--she and her husband Ed have sheltered and sustained and entertained me in sickness and in health; Ann Close has managed most wonderfully to be a warm friend and an excellent editor. Wise and tactful people--Alice Quinn, Daniel Menaker, Charles McGrath--have worked with me at The New Yorker, and Anne Mortimer-Maddox, known as Dusty, has performed incomparable feats of checking, making me seem more scrupulous and knowledgeable than I ever was. And I have also to thank Bill Buford and David Remnick for their attentive encouragement.