Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our chapbook contest, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print or email email@example.com for more information.
Dear Alice Munro,
If you and my grandmother were at a party at opposite ends of the room, I would introduce you. She is nine years older than you, born into a farming family just across our countries' shared border, and is largely uncelebrated. She had her children young and raised them well. Like you, she has a formidable intelligence, a dry sense of humor, a long memory for the stories she's heard.
Of course, even if it weren't extremely unlikely – the two of you meeting – I can't presume to know whether you would enjoy her company. Like many strangers, she is an admirer of your work. That's all. Now, she is nearing the end of her life. The last time I saw her – probably the last time I will ever see her – was two years ago at her assisted living facility in northern Michigan, and I had given her one of my own short stories to read. I think I associate you with her, Alice Munro, because of the intense respect I have for you both. The fear I felt, going into that room, was tangible. I could see my heart beating at the periphery of my vision. Suddenly, I remembered that there were curse-words in my story. More importantly, I worried that it wasn't any good.
My grandmother handed me the stapled pages. She had annotated them in faint pencil, that familiar script that I always struggled to decipher in her letters. The first thing she remarked upon was inconsistent spacing in my manuscript. Sometimes I used two spaces after a period and sometimes only one. Her eye, keen from decades of part-time editorial work, caught that error at once.
But she had a substantive comment, too. My grandmother told me that I should put more of myself into my fiction. She said that I should be more like you – she mentioned you by name. In a way, I believed I had been misunderstood then – what I had given her felt very personal to me – but I knew that to allow myself to feel hurt would not be useful. My grandmother, who had known me all my life, had read my work carefully, this infant story's barely-developed skull soft in her hands, and she looked deep into its eyes and couldn't see me looking back. She advised me to strive, above all else, to be honest in what I wrote. In 1994, you told two interviewers from the Paris Review that the material which is closest to you is that from your own life. “If I just relax,” you told them, “that’s what will come up.”
If the two of you were at a party, I would introduce you, but it's hard to imagine this now, because my grandmother fell and broke her leg and was moved to a nursing home and she doesn't know anymore which end of the cordless phone to speak into and which end to hold to her ear. She has always had an abiding interest in the people around her. Now, for the first time, that interest is flagging. She doesn't write letters anymore. When I spoke to her recently on the phone – my aunt helping her to hold it – she mentioned without irony the apocryphal belief that indigenous people in the far northern reaches of Canada leave their elders on the ice when it is time for them to die.
She said that she wanted that, or that it was noble. I can't remember exactly. I'm not like you two; I'm a forgetting machine. Things that are hard or painful, I forget right away.
You told the Wall Street Journal last year after winning the Nobel Prize, “I just write it the way I feel it and that’s it.” I believe you, Alice Munro. But in order to do that successfully, one must be scrupulously honest about the way one feels. I remember very well what my grandmother said to me about honesty – that it is a form of bravery. She has always showed me, by teaching and by example, how to be brave.
This letter is an honest one. Every word of it is true.