A Whole Life in One Story

I’ve been carrying around a short story anthology for a couple of weeks now, reading a story in the mornings with my coffee when I have the spare moments. Today I wanted to go straight to my writing spot, but upon starting one of the stories in the anthology I couldn’t move until I reached its end. I was at a table at the coffee chain I always find myself in, and the mood was just right for short-story reading. The place hushed, not too much high-pitched foaming on the part of the baristas, no loud people, not too many students because most must be home with their families. I had a table to myself in a corner. The story was many pages and I sat, engrossed, until I had reached the end: “Passion” by Alice Munro. I’ve read it before. The first time in The New Yorker, before I let my subscription lapse in favor of subscribing to something else. The second time when I bought her book Runaway. So it wasn’t new to me, this story, and yet so many of her stories have a similar feel—the small town girl, the event that changes her life, the looking back from faraway—and so at first I wasn’t sure which one it was. Then I knew, and it got me excited, and I dove in to read it again. I admire Alice Munro’s short stories so much—how is she able to fit an entire life into a single story? She focuses on one defining event and yet the rest of the character’s life can be seen there as well, under the surface or off to the side, moving beyond the space of the story, just as alive as if she’d written it and included it on the page. No more is needed. And at the same time it could go on forever. It’s a perfect balance. I’ve come to expect it, and still come away surprised, and in awe, at how she pulls it off. That’s a successful short story. It’s humbling now, as I sit here, about to continue work on my own.


  1. I love that story. And I love Alice Munro. She never ceases to inspire and teach me. Maybe I’ll go back and re-read before sitting down to write today.

  2. I too know the intimidation of reading a really fine story. Grace Paley used to humble me into mute exasperation. Then she replied to the letter I wrote her to tell her so, and even her little note blocked me for days. I’m back to writing now, and I try to tell life stories in even fewer words than she, or Alice Munro, usually unsuccessfully. I try to fail better each time.

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