Writing like Alice Munro: Cassie Sheets attempts to cultivate the routines of famous authors

Writing like Alice Munro: Cassie Sheets attempts to cultivate the routines of famous authors
Image courtesy of Random House

An undisciplined writer attempts to find a steady routine by following the routines of well-known authors, no matter how ridiculous they may be.

The prolific short story writer and latest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Alice Munro, has been on everyone’s minds and news feeds lately. But I promise, there is more to this choice than shameless search engine optimization. The choice to follow her routine comes down to the fact that I am way too busy to emulate some road tripping, sherry drinking, mid-day writing, or marathon running author right now. I may not have Munro’s small children to care for, but I do have an unpaid internship, two houseplants gravely in need of watering, and a pile of laundry surrounding and threatening to consume my bed.

Alice Munro became the "master of the contemporary short story" through necessity, not choice. In an interview with Cara Feinberg in The Atlantic, Munro explains why she never wrote a novel.

I had small children, I didn't have any help. Some of this was before the days of automatic washing machines, if you can actually believe it. There was no way I could get that kind of time. I couldn't look ahead and say, this is going to take me a year, because I thought every moment something might happen that would take all time away from me. So I wrote in bits and pieces with a limited time expectation.

In order to get into the mindset of Munro’s routine, I gave each of my midterm papers and internship projects names and treated them as needy time-consuming small children. The pile of laundry around my bed became a colicky infant, and my houseplants were two teenagers who popped into the kitchen to grab a slice of cold pizza from the fridge before ducking out to meet up with a friend, muttering, “Whatever, Mom.”

I started the first day with a load of laundry, and jotted a few sentences in my notebook while I ate breakfast. Each midterm paper needed hours of individual attention, but I put them down for a nap after lunch and wrote in thirty-minute bursts between wash and dry cycles. At three in the afternoon, my internship projects came home from grade-school, and I spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening listening to them babble on about their day or scrubbing spaghetti sauce off of their shirts. At midnight, all my “small children” were finally asleep, and I read over the choppy sections of writing I’d squeezed in that day.

On the second day, I ran out of the ten-dollar roll of quarters I’d picked up from the bank and had to wash the remainder of my clothing like Munro, pre-machine, in the bathtub. My writing time almost disappeared. When I have fifteen minutes away from working, the last thing I want to do is work. I still used some of my short breaks to write, but the vast majority of my sparse free time was spent taking sad selfies and looking up interviews with Anna Gunn on YouTube. Having fake children is exhausting.

While I wrote a significantly smaller volume during Munro’s routine, I did give up some of my ideas about how I thought I needed to work. I have always insisted I work best when I have several uninterrupted hours to dedicate to one task. In the past, this belief has kept me from starting a project or story unless I know my schedule is clear for the day. Munro’s routine broke me out of that mindset, and since trying it I’ve been writing more on the bus or train or in the ten minutes before a class starts. I’ve even cut back on how much time I spend procrastinating by watching interviews on YouTube. (I have not cut back on time spent taking sad selfies, and maintain this is an important part of my process as a writer.) What I have not learned from this routine is how to remember to water my disrespectful teenaged houseplants.

Cassie Sheets is a student at Columbia College Chicago where she wastes twenty grand a year trying to learn how to write.

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