Living the Epic Drama In Short Stories

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week. She is the thirteenth woman and first Canadian to win the prize. Munro’s award is also significant because she won it, not for a novel, but for being a “master of the contemporary short story.” That’s pretty cool.

When asked why she writes short stories instead of novels, Munro told The Atlantic:

So why do I like to write short stories? Well, I certainly didn’t intend to. I was going to write a novel. And still! I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up. I look at what I really want to do with the material, and it never turns out to be a novel. But when I was younger, it was simply a matter of expediency. 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. Perhaps I got used to thinking of my material in terms of things that worked that way. And then when I got a little more time, I started writing these odder stories, which branch out a lot. But I still didn’t write a novel, in spite of good intentions.

Munro, basically: “I had novel ideas and I’d start them, but…yeah, life, so short stories.”

And that’s how it is, isn’t it? Most of life transpires in short stories. At some level we all know this. For the most part, short stories are usually the ones we tell when we get home from work and check in with our wives or husbands. We share these over dinner with friends on weekends (“Oh McKenna, tell them about last Tuesday…”). Our whole existence is experienced in short bursts that follow one after the other like bulbs on a string of Christmas lights.

Munro’s answer fascinated me because it seems that we live in a big story culture. I know for myself, I love the big epics. Whether it’s film, narrative, or even serialized TV shows, it’s the big stories that draw me in and seem to shape the way I understand my life. They give me this sense that my life should be a novel, with colossal acts of greatness and feats of titanic courage and fortitude.

For Christians there’s an element of truth there, and not a small one either. I’m constantly reminding my students that, according to the Bible, we’re all living in a grand epic spanning the Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation of all things. In large part, our lives as disciples come together when we begin to see the world in those cosmic terms instead of through the myopic narratives that personal happiness and success would lead us into.

That said, most of life as a disciple doesn’t look cosmic and doesn’t require extraordinary valor. It’s actually quite humdrum, and it’s made up of thousands of tiny, little, not-that-significant decisions, small conversations, and bite-size interactions. Given that, there’s a temptation to think that all the little short stories don’t matter. We’re lulled into believing that unless we’re “writing a novel” with our lives in grand, epic terms, there’s nothing significant going on.

While Christians ought to remember that our lives participate in the grand “novel” of redemption, a story larger than we can typically see, we also need to know that this is lived out in the everyday short stories. Sure, the Bible is a grand drama, but it’s made up of hundreds of minuscule narratives populated with small, ordinary characters. The Gospel itself is prepared for by tiny but dramatic hinge-points, hinge points that depend on years of unrecorded obedience “in the little things,” development of character, and faithfulness in the mundane.

Munro’s Nobel Prize is a parable of the Kingdom: It reminds us that, by God’s grace, a lifetime of faithfully-crafted short stories can still constitute a body of work worthy of praise.

photo credit: tizzie via photopin cc

About Derek Rishmawy

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, serving college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog. You can connect on Facebook and can also follow him on Twitter at @DZRishmawy.

  • Gregory Wolfe

    Excellent thoughts, thank you. As a somewhat tangential point, I’d like to note that short story reading is on the decline. Collections of short stories are almost universally considered by publishers to be dead weight (they’re often published in order to get a novel from the author or as a reward for a successful novel).

    In other words, Alice Munro is one of the few exceptions to this rule, bless her.

    The irony is that today few people seem willing to take the time to read something like a 7,000 word short story.

    Perhaps this Nobel can serve as a vote of confidence for this essential, but increasingly neglected literary form.

  • Derek J White

    Thank you for this Derek!

    Life is short and broken dreams of ‘making an impact for Christ’ abound–often provoking a sense of spiritual anomy–as if God had let us down when we fail in our attempt to make it ‘big’ for Christ. Short stories are what make up the grand tapestry of life that displays itself in the heavens as a testimony against the works of the enemies of the Triune God.

    Another Derek

  • Mahlon Bekedam

    If we’re all taking part in the Big Story that God is writing, then surely our own stories are always the equivalent of short stories, don’t you think? Each disciple of Jesus has his or her own part to play in the big narrative. It is this connection to the Big Story that is often our challenge. We must all constantly work at seeing how our individual short stories fit into the big picture.

  • A.D. Everingham

    Lovely! Good post. Thank you.

    “Sure, the Bible is a grand drama, but it’s made up of hundreds of minuscule narratives populated with small, ordinary characters.”

    Oh to remember this! Radically ordinary are most of the pieces.


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