December 7, 2008

Can you count the number of sprinkles?


Flip through any anthology of what are considered the "best" short stories of the last decade or so, and you'll inevitably run across the name Alice Munro.

I don't know how to put my finger on what she does, or how she does it; I just know that we could all learn from the abundance of details she throws at us in each of her stories. And luckily for a fatty like me, those details are bound to include food every now and then...
Would you like to know how I am informed of your death? I go into the faculty kitchen, to make myself a cup of coffee before my ten o'clock class. Dodie Charles who is always baking something has brought a cherry pound cake. (The thing we old pros know about, in these fantasies, is the importance of detail, solidity; yes, a cherry pound cake.) It is wrapped in waxed paper and then in a newspaper. The Globe and Mail, not the local paper, that I would have seen. Looking idly at this week-old paper ... Only then do I realize. Your name. The city where you lived and died. A heart attack, that will do."
- From the story Tell Me Yes or No, by Alice Munro
I bolded the portion that I particularly like about this passage; I like to think that Alice is being self-reflective here, or at least talking to budding young writer-wannabes.

Maybe she's calling herself an old pro who knows enough to include the detail of cherry pound cake --
not just cake,
not just pound cake,
but cherry pound cake.

And this cherry pound cake is in waxed paper and newspaper...not just any newspaper, but a local paper the narrator wouldn't normally be reading.
And reading the fine print of that paper, is what gets her somewhere.

Somewhere. And wouldn't we like to go somewhere?

Here's to counting sprinkles, or reading the details (and maybe writing them sometimes, too)! Characters have interesting lives because they discern details that lead them to circumstances we can't even begin to imagine for ourselves; instead, we are those who seek them vicariously through literature.