The story goes that Alice Munro was under pressure to stop writing short stories and craft a novel, but found she couldn’t do it.
Douglas Gibson, an editor of some of Canada’s iconic literary talents, claims he met Munro at a Holiday Inn, and they had a chat.
“I said, ‘Look, you’re a sprinter,’” Gibson recently told CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers.
“‘It’s crazy to train you to be a marathon runner, and if you come with me and want to go on writing short stories until the end of your life, I will be happy to publish them and you will never, ever hear me ask you for a novel.’”
Munro became the preeminent short story writer of her time, an icon in Canada and around the world.
As Gibson noted in the interview, a reviewer from The Times (U.K.) once wrote that when reading Munro’s work, “it is difficult to remember why the novel was ever invented.”
The lesson here is to avoid mashing square pegs into round holes – an old idea that’s almost profound, and one of the greatest bits of wisdom I learned growing up.
As a kid I spent mountains of time playing basketball, and in my mind there was no limit to what I could do in the sport.
I liked to dribble lots and shoot jump shots and drive to the basket in search of layups or dunks.
It took years to acknowledge I was horrible at dribbling and shooting and that it was best if I stayed within 10 feet of the basket.
When I accepted this, I learned to let good dribblers dribble, let good shooters shoot, and I found my niche as a post player who blocked shots, rebounded, and made the occasional layup.
Learning to play to my strengths and let others do the same was liberating and made the game easier and more enjoyable.
In my first year of university, I learned a similar lesson when it came to choosing a career.
I have never been much of a talker, and the prospect of speaking publicly is less enticing than a root canal.
As a student I learned to endure class presentations but I rarely enjoyed them. I was more comfortable taking notes and typing into a computer.
When the time came to choose a career, journalism was an obvious choice.
I never became an outstanding post player in basketball, and (as you can imagine) the Pulitzer committee has yet to darken my door.
But I was better in the post than as a dribbler or a long-range shooter. I am better suited to journalism than most other things.
It took time to accept all this – to acknowledge my limitations and learn to play according to my strengths. But it was also a revelation, and a path to a happier life.
The truth is, Alice Munro could likely have been a novelist, and likely a good one. But as an author of short stories, she’s unparalleled.
Time spent fretting over a longer narrative would be time away from what she’s clearly meant to do. It wouldn’t be a travesty, but it would be a shame.
Gibson was wise to not force a sprinter to run marathons, and the same wisdom applies to those of us who are not literary giants.
We’re all built to run a certain kind of race. The challenge is to find the right one, train hard, and throw everything we have into finishing well.
That's easier said than done, but something to aim for.