Wednesday, February 5, 2014

This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

This collection of previously published articles, speeches and essays by Ann Patchett deeply satisfied my curiosity about the life of the best-selling author. Usually such collections are a grab bag, too miscellaneous for a straight-through read. But I did not feel that way about this collection. Patchett's remarkably down-to-earth voice, at times playful, wry or questioning, often self-deprecating, kept me reading.

Readers will close the book knowing not only the story of her happy second marriage, but also her disastrous first, as well as her long and soulful relationship with a foundling puppy named Rose. Further topics include caring for her grandmother, her friendship with Lucy Grealy (which resulted in the book Truth & Beauty), her love of opera, learning how to write and her writing process, as well as her role in opening Parnassus, an independent bookstore in Nashville. I found the last chapter especially moving; it tells the story of her relationship with the elderly nuns who once taught her in Catholic school.

Patchett's writing process amazed me. She works the bones of a novel out in her head, not writing down a word until she has a good feel for it. What a feat of active imagination! I love these lines about learning to write:

Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art, you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. (page 29)

Patchett graduated from the esteemed Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she learned "how to tune my ear to the usefulness and uselessness of other people's opinions." Among the teachers she shares memories of are Grace Paley and Allan Gurganus. So reading this memoir-ish collection was truly a fantastic tour through what makes accomplished storyteller Patchett tick.

Here's one more surprising fact I learned about Patchett reading the book: thinking she wanted to write about police work, she trained hard and passed the Los Angeles Police department's physical and written exam, following in the footsteps of her father. She can leap over tall walls in one bound! Now I know Ann Patchett truly is a superwoman!