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Practicing Writing

Although I had enjoyed several of Ann Patchett's novels, I ignored her nonfiction, assuming This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage would simply be a cheerful memoir. But when, online, I happened upon "The Getaway Car," her essay about writing, tried to find a physical copy in my local library, and discovered it was available only in that essay collection I'd deliberately overlooked. I immediately checked out the book and have since renewed it four times. It's a good collection and "The Getaway Car" is a good, long article about writing, centered on her fiction ("consolidating the bulk of what I know about the work I do in one place") but applicable to creative nonfiction as well.


 "Every writer approaches writing in a different way," Patchett declares, contrasting approaches between "people who write in order to find out where the story goes" ("if they know the ending of the book there would be no point in writing it)" and people, including herself, "who map out everything in advance," (like John Irving, who "can't start writing his books until he thinks up the last sentence"). I haven't written fiction for decades, but I identify more with her first group than with the group she identifies with. I usually have the urge to write about something but need to write about it to discover why I want to write about it.


Asserting that "to get to the art you must master the craft," she advises, "If you want to write, practice writing." She believes, "I get better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages." She emphasizes self-forgiveness as key: "I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself." When people ask her if writing can be taught, she claims, "I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can't teach you how to have something to say." Her observation reminds me of the challenge in teaching writing to students. Textbooks often center on grammatical correctness or, in subject matter courses, on approved interpretations of subject matter, both easier to evaluate than comprehension and individual understanding. Sounding like you know what you're talking about is different from actually having something to say.


Patchett also suggests that the influence of reading other writers is often unpredictable, because a particular work can somehow impact you "in moments when you are especially open." She was influenced by Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain and Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, reminding me of how idiosyncratic responses to writing usually are. I remember college professors who completely dismissed writers I found inspiring, like Kurt Vonnegut, Wallace Stegner, and Ivan Doig. Feeling her two years at the University of Iowa (where I spent six years) was "an imperfect experience," she claims, "An essential element of being a writer is learning whom to listen to and whom to ignore where your work is concerned." (Once, in William deBuys' writing course, I listened to a discussion of one of my drafts and remember feeling only one classmate had actually read it. I followed her advice and ignored other remarks.)


Patchett's advice about writing fiction usually draws on experience. One example: "If you decide to work completely from your imagination, you will find yourself shocked by all the autobiographical elements that make their way into the text. If, on the other hand, you go the path of the roman à clef, you'll wind up changing the details of your life that are dull." Another example: "ranking everything in my life that needs doing," writing fiction always number one, then zooming through "a whole host of unpleasant tasks to avoid item number one." (I've operated that way myself.) She also recommends "picking an amount of time to sit your desk every day. . . without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books. . .. Sooner or later, you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing, or" you'll give up altogether.


 "If I'm writing a book," Patchett claims, "I'm racing to be finished; if I'm finished, I feel aimless and wish that I were writing a book." One January, daily for thirty-one days, she spent at least one hour composing and usually wrote for more than an hour. When it produced "some of the best writing I'd done in a long time," she continued through the year. She concludes, "Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world." She's right. I really ought to follow Ann Patchett's example.


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