Sunday, July 27, 2014

Summer Reading--This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

“The tricky thing about being a writer,” Ann Patchett writes in her memoir This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (HarperCollins, 2013), “is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living.”  She had my attention with that first line in the first essay.  Her work here is a compendium of pieces published in a variety of magazines and journals over the years, and includes what I later discovered to be her most famous essay on the writing life:  “The Getaway Car:  A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life, ” which first appeared in an online publication called Byliner.

Patchett began her life in letters at Seventeen magazine where she published several short fictional stories.  She asked her editor for a nonfiction assignment, figuring that at most she could publish one or two pieces of fiction in the magazine’s pages each year.  However, “A writer of nonfiction, on the other hand, could publish an article every issue, sometimes multiple articles in a single issue.”  She hoped to free herself from the chains of making a living so she could write.  She worked as a teacher tending “to the creativity of others” which left her dead tired and devoid of creativity of her own.  She also tried waitressing, but the job left her so exhausted at the end of the day that she literally fell into bed.  Her work at Seventeen would be the breakthrough however the book review the magazine assigned her had to be rewritten “a half a dozen times,” and in each revision she was asked “to consider another aspect of the novel.”  She realized quite quickly that for every ten story ideas she pitched, only one would be given the go-ahead.  A lucky break comes when a writer fails to meet a deadline on an article addressing procrastination, and Patchett is asked to step in at the eleventh hour as the magazine is going to press.  She trained herself to be the go-to writer, and the discipline pays off.  “Magazine work was an uncertain business,” she writes, “assignments were killed on a whim, checks were late, and there was always someone who owed me expenses—but I never lost sight of how much easier it was than busing tables or grading papers.”

“The Getaway Car” explores her early life as well as her writing process.  Patchett may have decided not to teach, but she makes a clear, refreshing and wise teacher on these pages.  She affirms that sense of awe and wonder in the writer’s life and work, and even though there are disappointments and discouragements, she remains focused on the goal:  good, moving prose.  These are lessons she learns from her mentors, poet Jane Cooper, novelist Allan Gurganus and short story specialist Grace Paley, each of whom gets his or her due in the essay.  She also gives the reader one of the best descriptions of how an idea comes to fruition and in the birthing process, moves far away from the colorfully rich concept that once lived in whatever part of the brain responsible for inspiration.  “Everything that was beautiful about this living thing,” she writes about the completion of the book, “all the color, the light and movement—is gone.  What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled.  Dead.  That’s my book.”  And that is the challenge of rendering ideas into prose.

The title of the collection is about her courtship and marriage to her husband.  She also explains how she came to own one of the most important independent bookstores in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.  The last two essays, though, are real heartbreakers.  One details her life with a beloved dog, Rose, and how animals deepen our life experiences and make even painful times bearable.  Again, Patchett’s personality is revealed in the details, especially how Rose enters her life.  However, it is her evocation of the end of the dog’s life that sticks in the heart.  “Sometimes love does not have the most honorable beginnings, and the endings, the endings will break you in half.  It’s everything in between we live for.”

In “The Mercies,” Patchett explains her relationship to her childhood teacher, a nun from the Sisters of Mercy order.  Now both of them are much older, and Sister Nena is nearing the end of her life and must, for the first time, move to a small apartment in a dicey area of town and live by herself.  It is a moving and poignant essay that avoids sentimentality and over-wrought emotions in favor of clear-eyed prose.  As they have lunch together, the elderly nun, upon reflecting on the death of a friend, raises the question of where the soul goes after we die.  Here is a woman who has dedicated her life to religious service asking the former student for wisdom.  “Nobody’s sure,” Patchett tells her.  The nun, staring into her own mortality, tells her that her friend was sure.  “I know God made us,” she tells Patchett, “but I’m not sure about what happens afterward.”

“What do you want to happen?” Patchett asks her.

“I want God to hold me…”

“You above all others,” Patchett responds.  “You first.”

I loved the book and found her an exhilarating and wise writer.  I took those novels of hers from the middle of the “to read” pile and put them on top.  So many books.

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