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The dimensions of a storyteller

When the Nobel committee named her the "master of the contemporary short story," Alice Muro stirred creative imaginations

May 7, 2014

The dimensions of a storyteller
In 1950, Alice Munro, DLitt’76, published her first short story in a student journal at Western. Since then, her writing has garnered worldwide accolades. To celebrate her literary career and her Nobel Prize in Literature, Western is establishing the Alice Munro Chair in Creativity.

In 1950, Alice Laidlaw wanted to publish her first story. The young student from small-town Ontario didn’t own a typewriter, so her friend Diane Lane offered to type the short story for her.

Ms. Laidlaw submitted the story to Folio, the student literary journal at Western. When the editor, John Cairns, read her piece – “The Dimensions of a Shadow” – he reportedly ran down the corridor, waving the pages in his hand and shouting, “You’ve got to read this. You’ve got to read this.”

Fortunately, many readers and writers have been heeding his plea ever since.

Now, more than 60 years later, praise for Alice (Laidlaw) Munro, DLitt’76, has risen to universal acclaim after she was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature.

In recognition of Ms. Munro’s literary career and artistic life, and her connection with Western, the University has established the Alice Munro Chair in Creativity.

Celebrating the creative life
“Western in 1950 was an incubator of creativity for someone who has become the prose stylist of our time,” says Bryce Traister, chair of Western’s Department of English and Writing Studies. “What impresses me is that during her two years at Western (1949-51), she found a community that recognized her talent and promoted it.”

That same community brought Ms. Munro back to Western in 1975 to be writer-in-residence and awarded her an honorary degree in 1976 – the only such degree she has ever accepted from any university.

The challenge for Western, says Traister, is to continue being a home for creativity.

“To enhance a learning environment that values and engages the creative life takes moral support from the University,” he adds, “and an expansive vision that says: creativity matters.”

For Western, it does. A commitment to match gifts to the Alice Munro Chair in Creativity (up to $1.5 million) speaks to the University’s desire to celebrate Ms. Munro, affirm a culture of creativity and invest in students. Fundraising efforts will continue until the full amount is secured.

Engaging future Alice Munros
The Faculty of Arts & Humanities plans to recruit someone of renown to hold the Chair, a scholarly creative voice who will “lead a campus-wide conversation about creativity and stretch our understanding of how creativity applies to all parts of life,” says Traister.

The person who holds the Alice Munro Chair in Creativity will teach courses that harness creative thought and develop ways to incorporate creativity in career development and student success.

Fittingly, this scholar will demonstrate that creativity and critical thinking involve every academic pursuit, social issue and global challenge.

“Providing a place that encourages creative expression will recognize Alice Munro’s achievements, while giving opportunities for students to explore creativity in all its forms,” says Michael Milde, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities.

“There’s no better way to honour her literary start at Western and her illustrious career than to foster more creativity on campus.”

Saluting the extraordinary and ordinary
Yet for all the accolades her creative genius has generated – from a student editor proclaiming her talent in 1950 to the literary world declaring its Nobel praise in 2013 – Ms. Munro’s work resists the very pomp and sentimentality it has recently received.

Instead, her stories quietly reveal the inner drama underneath the outer tranquility of her characters.

As Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, shared at the Nobel Prize ceremony in December 2013, “her intelligence, compassion and astonishing power of perception enable her to give their lives a remarkable dignity – indeed redemption – since she shows how much of the extraordinary can fit into that jam-packed emptiness called The Ordinary.”

A fitting salute for a creative talent once described at Western as “Folio’s new find.” Thankfully, more of the world has discovered how the dimensions of a fine storyteller are found in Alice Munro.

To discover more about the Alice Munro Chair in Creativity, contact Jessica Schagerl, Alumni and Development Officer for the Faculty of Arts & Humanities (519.661.2111, ext. 87896).

This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Impact Western
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