Knowledge Gems from an Expert Author Educed by an Expert Host: Alice Munro Interviewed by Peter Gzowski (1996)

In 1996, acclaimed CBC host Peter Gzowski interviewed Alice Munro, well before she won a Nobel prize in literature. Here are a few knowledge gems from Rewind with Michael Enright, today’s republication of this fabulous interview:

  • Munro stressed the importance of perseverance. She is quite grateful that she persevered with writing, learning “to stick with something”. “The biggest thing was to learn to work things through.”
  • She felt it took her a long time to learn to be a writer. Once while in Ireland, she gave up on a story she had written. She literally threw it away. On her return, she realized it was good and rewrote it.
  • She feels authors don’t necessarily gain wisdom, not even better judgment; they simply become more skilled.
  • Writing doesn’t get easier. It doesn’t matter what you’ve accomplished previously (the prizes and all), it’s always difficult. Starting a new manuscript is like starting a first one.
  • In fact, she says, writing gets more difficult over the years, because you use up all the easy sources of writing (passionate early experience, ego, self-expression). There is a greater need for creativity, making up materials. It becomes more difficult to “find the story”.
  • She finds she can’t write about current events in her life. She needs to wait many years in order to understand what she and others were going through, what was really going on.
  • Munro said that there is always a key paragraph in her stories that captures the essence of the story — that which led her to write the story and to which she referred while writing it. But, of course, she never highlights the paragraph. It’s an exercise for the reader to figure it out!
  • Munro says that one shouldn’t read more than one of her stories per week.
  • Her favourite story of those she herself wrote was then Carried Away.
  • Some of her favourite stories: Strange Pilgrims (Gabriel García Márquez), which she has read several times; The Dead (James Joyce); Guests of the Nation (Frank O’Connor).

The first few bullets sum up the story of expertise. Developing expertise always requires a lot of practice. Her point about writing always being difficult is also key to expertise. To be sure, some aspects of writing must have gotten easier for her (as they have for all experts). But some aspects remained difficult. Crystalized expertise, i.e., which is not to push the boundaries but to rely on pattern matching and proceduralization, makes for easy performance. In contrast, fluid expertise, which involves trying to be creative, original, and world class, is always demanding.

Consider also her comment about reading less. (Reading one story per week.) This implicitly calls for “delving” , which itself involves reflecting on what we have read so that we can learn from it. Contrast speed reading.

All quite relevant to cognitive productivity…

Enjoy the interview :).

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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