What liberties can writers take in using other people’s lives in their work? A look at two stories by Alice Munro.
The most common piece of advice given to aspiring writers is that they should write about what they know. It is no surprise then, that there are no shortages of stories about the act of writing itself. From masters such as Alice Munro to amateurs such as myself, in some way or another, writers inevitably allow their struggles and triumphs concerning their favorite pastime to enter into their work. Indeed, I don’t even know what supports this claim more: that there’s enough material to teach a college-level course called “Writers on Writing,” or, in the previous sentence, that I decided to write myself in as an example in this essay. The works that result from the drive to write about writing often become more than simply stories about writers. Rather, they exist as meditations on the art form which often include the authors’ own views about the roles and responsibilities that writers must accept. The stories “Family Furnishings” and “Meneseteung” by Alice Munro are very much a part of this literary tradition. Indeed, both these stories explore the politics behind “writing about what you know”—more precisely, writing about who you know and what right one may have to co-opt or take liberties with a given person’s life story. In grappling with these questions, the texts interact with each other in both complementary and often contradictory ways. Despite their surface-level similarities in theme, these two texts ultimately offer conflicting conclusions regarding the liberties that writers can and should be allowed to take in using other people’s lives in their works.
Understanding the ways in which “Family Furnishings” and “Meneseteung” diverge begins with understanding the ways in which they interact. The first of these is the narrative lens in which these stories unfold. Both stories include many instances in which the narrator incorporates textual elements of different fictitious provenances into the story in order to create an illusion of authenticity that extends beyond the world of the text. This is most prominent in “Meneseteung,” a story in which the unnamed narrator discovers the life of fictitious Victorian poet Almeda Joynt Roth through her work and surrounding material. The story features poems written by Roth “herself,” and newspaper clippings from her local paper, the Vidette, which are interspersed through most of the text. On one level, these serve as the supposed sources for the narrator within the work. In even the more straightforward parts, the narrator cites the Vidette as the way in which she “read about that life” (480). On another level, they influence the reader’s perceptions and expectations about the genre of the work, which is important in understanding its eventual conclusion. To illustrate, this story can be read, as I had first read it, as a legitimate piece of history being uncovered—which, of course, it isn’t; every aspect of the story is fabricated from the mind of Munro, including the very existence of a Canadian writer named Almeda Joynt Roth.
“Family Furnishings” incorporates similar elements, but they work in service of a different perception. Like “Meneteteung,” “Family Furnishings” uses similarly devised source material, including fictional newspaper clippings. One significant difference is that this narrator isn’t assembling content that she presumably found from digging through history books. Rather, she’s recalling stories told to her by others and experienced by her first hand. This is seen even from the first lines when the narrator recalls a story that her aunt Alfrida had often told her, which she then uses as a gateway into another family story, and then another. In this way, the story has the feel of a memoir; one about the narrator’s coming of age as a writer and one that is told from a time when the narrator has a certain level of hindsight and perspective about her life. These pseudo collages of different literary sources serve the explicit purpose of creating specific styles of writing that Munro wants the reader to engage with while reading. The way in which Munro plays with genre, both in terms of form and in terms of setting the reader’s expectations, is one of the most significant ways in which she explores the larger themes in her stories.
The way these two stories are presented not only serves as a conceit of genre but also informs the writer-subject relationships at the center of each. In “Meneseteung,” the relationship between the narrator and Almeda is presented as one of discovery, in which the narrator comes into contact with Roth and then writes about her in an almost obsessive attempt to discover, and ultimately create Roth’s life story. Thus, except for the last couple of paragraphs, “Meneseteung” itself is taken, preliminarily, as Almeda’s story; the narrator’s story-stealing is in service of the story as a whole. In “Family Furnishings,” the narrator borrows Alfrida’s story in two ways. First, within the narrative, one of the most significant events that transpires between the narrator and her aunt occurs when the narrator uses the story of Alfrida’s mother in one of her short stories. The narrator is reminded of this story while having dinner with her aunt and eventually, after realizing that she wants to be a writer, decides to make it the subject of one of her works. She later learns that Alfrida objects to this, which puzzles her slightly, as she didn’t think that the story had anything to do with her aunt. Instead, the narrator protests to her father that the story was only about the character she had created and had nothing to do with her aunt’s actual mother. This stance, that a writer should be able to use whichever story they want, is really only the initial one taken by the narrator. As I argue later, she changes her perspective on the matter as time advances. The second way that the narrator uses her aunt’s story is that, by virtue of its memoir-esque style, the story as a whole is a way of taking Alfrida’s story and writing about it. Furthermore, the specific ways in which the anecdotes that fill the story are recalled and explained are done purposely, by the narrator, and are an alternative way of talking about Alfrida’s life. Consider the very first word of the text: “Alfrida.” The narrator is making it clear right from the start that this story is about her aunt. And from this point, she launches into the story about Alfrida and her father, an anecdote that bookends the work in a very significant manner. The final positions that the two narrators take regarding these very decisions are made clear at the end of each story.
The final five paragraphs of “Meneseteung” illuminate the narrator’s position very clearly. The narrator, who had previously been narrating from an omniscient perspective, suddenly takes control of the narrative and inserts her own experience into this story. She describes visiting the graveyard in which Almeda’s family was buried in search for the poet’s grave. When she gets there, she finds it hidden away under grass and dirt, which she pulls out of the way to reveal her tombstone. This act works as a perfect metaphor for what the narrator has been doing to this forgotten writer over the course of the story. By researching her and writing about her in this way, she is presenting to the world something that had previously been hidden to them, just as the tombstone was as well. But the narrator doesn’t stop there. At the very end, she makes one final observation about the nature of reviving a person through their work that changes the story significantly. She concedes, “I may have gotten it wrong” and that “I don’t know if [Roth] ever made grape jelly” (497). By including this final reflection as the last lines of the story, the narrator is admitting to the reader that all the information about Roth might not have been accurate at all. Thus this concession even seems to endorse the idea and accept it as something that is essential in the act of writing. After all, whenever a character is based on a preexisting personage, the author always has the possibility of getting it wrong. This margin of error is something that is ingrained in the act and something from which one cannot dissociate oneself. In short, by breaking the conventions of this style and taking the narrative into her own hands, the narrator is admitting that Almeda’s story was not a discovery but rather a construction, one with the goal of telling the narrative she wanted to tell.
The ending of “Family Furnishings,” on the other hand, takes a decidedly different stance on the matter. While at the narrator’s father’s funeral, the narrator meets someone who purports to be a daughter that Alfrida had given up for adoption. They talk briefly, and the daughter recounts the same story told in the very first lines. In the narrator’s conception of the story, her father and Almeda were playing in a fields as kids when the church bells sounded signaling the end of the First World War. Alfrida’s daughter hears this version and points out that they couldn’t’ve been children as they were walking home from high-school. After hearing this revelation the narrator makes a stark realization that completely redefines the way she perceived Alfrida and her father’s relationship. She realizes that the woman she was talking to was the secret love child of her father and her aunt that they might have conceived on one such walk through the field after school. From this point, in which the narrator is revealed to be naïve about something she had previously claimed to know, the narrator moves back in time, recalling the hours after she was first inspired to write. During this time, she walked to a coffee shop and, very idealistically, decided that from then on, she would be a writer. She also decided her entire philosophy about writing and explained it in this passage: “I did not think of the story I would make about Alfrida—not of that in particular—but of the work I wanted to do, which seemed more like grabbing something out of the air than constructing stories” (17). By juxtaposing the moment that ostensibly led to her taking this story from Alfrida’s life and the previous moment of supreme and prideful naïveté, the narrator is essentially admitting that such a level of naïveté had carried onto some of her own writing. She is saying that this idea of “grabbing things out of the air” is a conception of writing that places a lot of responsibility in the hands of the writer. It is something that demands a certain level of perspective in order to use their stories appropriately; a level of perspective that she did not have when she started out writing. In this way, the entire story is an attempt to rectify this wrong and do justice to Alfrida’s story. In contrast with the first story, this one contains a much more complete understanding of Alfrida as well as an account of the way in which the narrator failed to write about her properly. For the narrator, this story is a way in which she can do Alfrida’s story justice.
For this reason, “Family Furnishings” and “Meneseteung” seem to conflict with one and other regarding their positions on a writer’s responsibilities. The former exists as almost a cautionary tale about the foils of immaturity in representing the lives of others. It shows a character who eventually realizes that she wasn’t as smart as she thought she was, and although there is no explicit moment when she proclaims any regret, the two anecdotes that Munro placed at the end, presented in conjunction with one and other, hint at the idea that the narrator’s original idealistic fervor about writing eventually resulted in her taking and misusing someone else’s life. The latter story, however, seems to accept a certain level of ignorance as a given whenever one deals with someone else’s story. Instead of remedying this with an excess of care, “Meneseteung” leaves the door open for the author’s own personal ideas to mold this story to their liking.
In rereading these texts with their stances on authorial responsibility in mind, one can even recognize subtle ways in which these ideas are ingrained in their form. Indeed, there are many instances in ”Meneseteung” which can only really be read as fabrication. For instance, during the climax of the story, when the narrator has a moment of clarity regarding her future as an artist and devises the all-encompassing poem she would call “Meneseteung,” the way in which the narrator describes the situation mirrors the way that Almeda herself would be thinking. It is clear that it would be impossible to present any version of this event that could be an authentic description of what happened, but that doesn’t stop the narrator from presenting one. According to her ”this-could-be-wrong” belief system, some level of fabrication is simply a part of the medium. Similarly, in ”Family Furnishings,” there are many smaller instances in which the narrator, by now abundant in perspective about writing, hints at her own state of unawareness. At one point, she remarks how she never thought of Almeda as having parents, demonstrating her limited and almost egocentric view of things. Later, she even reflects upon the danger of seeing her own life through the eyes of others—a statement that essentially sums up the feelings that Almeda must have had toward her story (14). In these instances, she is recognizing the lack of perspective to which certain experiences have awakened her .
In these texts, Munro explores various types of narrative styles and plays with their conventions, eventually allowing the reader in on what their respective narrators think about what they have done. The two works ultimately present seemingly different views concerning the question of using other people’s life stories, with ”Family Furnishings” warning of the pitfalls of being naïve while doing so and ”Meneseteung” accepting and even embracing the idea that writers can take liberties with others’ lives. Whether either of these diverging opinions reflect Munro’s thoughts on the matter or whether they’re simply positions taken by the specific characters, who is to say. Regardless, they exist as further proof of the level of mastery at embodying characters that Munro exhibits.
Munro, Alice. Family Furnishings: Selected stories 1995-2014. Alfred A. Knopf. 2015.
Munro, Alice. “Meneseteung.” The New Yorker, 11 January 1988, pp. 28-36.