Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Question of Experience

Anne Enright’s short story collection, Yesterday’s Weather, compiles stories from her 2008 book, Taking Pictures, her 1991 book, The Portable Virgin, and two stories that appeared in 1989 in Faber’s First Fictions: Introductions 10, a British anthology of new writers. A friend of mine did a presentation on Yesterday’s Weather in workshop last semester and I borrowed it from her to read over the break, thinking it would provide some interesting insight into how we progress as writers.

Anne Enright earned her MA from the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing program (incidentally the same place my thesis advisor Gerri Brightwell, author of The Dark Lantern, earned her MA before coming to UAF to earn her MFA, and for that matter, the University of East Anglia is the place many acclaimed British writers earned their MAs). In her introduction to Yesterday’s Weather, Enright says that she chose to organize this collection in reverse chronological order, where the more recent stories appear first, followed by the 1991 stories, and those early First Fictions stories finish the collection.

Enright says she organized the collection in this way in part because it is funny for her to see how much her view of the world has changed over time. Many of Enright’s stories are about being a mother and being a wife – two topics Enright openly admits she knew nothing about when she started as a writer.

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this shift can be seen when you compare two of Enright’s stories on the same topic: a story about a woman who realizes that her husband has had an affair. Actually, this theme recurs quite frequently in Enright’s stories, but for the sake of comparison we’ll look at one that was from the 1991 set and one that was from the 2008 collection. In the story originally published in 1991, the woman reacts by dying her thinning hair blond and stealing another woman’s purse at the salon only to drown it in the river. So. She goes a bit nutty, in other words. In the story published in 2008, the woman’s struggle is not so simple and the woman herself seems far more bothered by her husband’s infidelities . . . and yet, she is somehow also more accepting of them.

The more recent story feels realer to me. It deals with the issue in a more complex way and even though the feminist side of me (though I would never identify myself as a feminist!) is frustrated with both characters for not simply leaving their husbands, I believe the newer story (it’s actually more believable than my fantasy that the wife would just leave) and the story is laid out so that I feel I understand the character’s reaction. The character's reaction in the 1991 story is a little too dramatic in my eyes. In Enright’s defense (or at least, in defense of the writer she was 17 years ago), I’m simplifying the 1991 story dramatically; it is certainly still a complex story, but compare it with the 2008 story and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Looking at these stories in this way is intriguing since many of us get really serious about writing before we get really serious about life. That is, we lock ourselves in our rooms and write, write, write, the only problem is we’re spending all of our time at the computer and, consequently, have very little to actually write about. And some common life experiences (you know, those seemingly insignificant little ones that the ordinary reader will have experienced for him or herself and will, then, be able to tell if you’re speaking about something you don’t understand) just don’t really happen until you get a little older, have a little more perspective.

There is also an interesting stylistic shift that I noticed in Enright’s stories but I’ll talk about that next time.

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