Patch­ett es­says fo­cus on writer’s craft

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Char­lotte Dug­gan

THE ti­tle of Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Ann Patch­ett’s lat­est book is taken from one of the 22 non-fic­tion es­says col­lected here — which tells the story of the writer’s happy mar­riage to her sec­ond hus­band. But what this col­lec­tion re­ally lays bare is the truth about a dif­fer­ent kind of mar­riage: the deep, de­mand­ing and in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship be­tween a writer and her craft. These re­veal­ing and en­ter­tain­ing es­says not only show­case Patch­ett’s tal­ent, but also of­fer a peek into the writer’s life and pas­sions. Most mem­bers of the Patch­ett fan club joined be­cause of her 2001 Pen/Faulkner Award win­ning novel, Bel Canto. These fans may not know that be­fore her first novel, The Pa­tron Saint of Liars, was pub­lished in 1992, Patch­ett paid her rent by writ­ing for Amer­i­can pub­li­ca­tions as di­verse as Sev­en­teen and The New York Times Magazine. Those years of jour­nal­ism honed a work­horse men­tal­ity Patch­ett in­cludes in her list of cred­its as to her suc­cess as a writer. She finds non-fic­tion writ­ing easy com­pared to the lim­it­less­ness of fic­tion, she says, be­cause it is like a “so­prano’s boned corset, the built-in re­stric­tions pro­vid­ing both sup­port and some­thing to push against.” Most of the per­sonal es­says in this col­lec­tion were writ­ten af­ter the com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal suc­cess of Bel Canto gave Patch­ett, who also op­er­ates a small book­store in her home­town of Nashville, Tenn., the fi­nan­cial free­dom to choose her writ­ing as­sign­ments. In The Get­away Car, as­pir­ing writ­ers will find the usual kinds of ad­vice doled out to writ­ers: “ideas are ev­ery­where,” “plots must be com­pli­cated,” and most im­por­tant, “prac­tise.” But what el­e­vates Patch­ett’s ad­vice from writer’s work­shop ma­te­rial to illustration of the art of the craft is Patch­ett’s sub­lime prose. The de­scrip­tion of her writ­ing process is fas­ci­nat­ing and, be warned, as­pir­ing writ­ers, painful. Patch­ett de­scribes the ag­o­niz­ing meta­mor­pho­sis of the novel of her imag­i­na­tion — “a thing of in­de­scrib­able beauty” — to what ul­ti­mately ends up on the page, where she says she “kills it.” “It’s the only way I can get some­thing that is three-di­men­sional onto the flat page.” It is be­cause of this tor­tur­ous process that Patch­ett be­lieves so few peo­ple ac­tu­ally write: “Only a few of us are go­ing to be will­ing to break our own hearts by trad­ing in the liv­ing beauty of imag­i­na­tion for the stark dis­ap­point­ment of words.” Among Patch­ett’s con­sid­er­able gifts is her abil­ity to find lessons in even the grimmest of sit­u­a­tions, and to then turn these into beau­ti­ful, truth­ful prose and non-fic­tion. In How to Read a Christ­mas Story, Patch­ett re­counts a bit­ter­sweet mem­ory of her fam­ily’s com­pli­cated post-di­vorce hol­i­day ar­range­ments. Her lit­tle girl con­fu­sion and sad­ness is pal­pa­ble, but what stands out is the ten­der de­scrip­tion of her fa­ther read­ing to her, over the phone, the best Christ­mas story ever. In The Sacra­ment of Di­vorce, Patch­ett does not shy away from hold­ing her­self ac­count­able for the mis­ery she caused her­self and her first hus­band. But here again she finds a sil­ver lin­ing, and the les­son she takes for­ward be­comes the beau­ti­ful love-let­ter­like es­say about her sec­ond hus­band in This is the Story of a Happy Mar­riage. Just as there is va­ri­ety and sur­prise in ev­ery good mar­riage, so is there in this col­lec­tion. With top­ics rang­ing from an im­pas­sioned ad­dress to a col­lege fresh­man class on “the right to read” to a hi­lar­i­ous ac­count of a Win­nebago road trip — “Peo­ple who don’t like them have never been in one” — this book is not to be missed, as­pir­ing writer or not. Char­lotte Dug­gan is a teacher-li­brar­ian in

Win­nipeg.

This Is the Story of a

Happy Mar­riage

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