I’ve been an Ann Patchett fan since I read Bel Canto years ago and have read nearly everything she’s written–fiction and nonfiction. Before she became a bestselling author though, she had a substantial career as a freelance writer for popular magazines, although she always believed that career was temporary. This fine collection of essays touches on writing, love, and life, which for Patchett are one and the same. Humbly, I’m giving you a small sampler of her words from This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
Patchett believes in both the discipline and forgiveness it takes to be a writer. She has virtually no social media presence.
“Write it out. Tell the truth. Stack up the pages. Learn to write by writing.”
“The lesson is this: the more we are willing to separate from distraction and step into the open arms of boredom, the more writing will get on the page.”
“What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out.
“Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life…I believe more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is 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.”
And on the oft-repeated advice to write what you know:
“Writers need not be confined by their own dull lives and petty Christmas sadness.”
“In my books, I make up the experiences and the characters, but the emotional life is real. It is my own. I think this is probably true of most novelists.”
“You will take bits from books you’ve read and movies you’ve seen and conversations you’ve had and stories friends have told you, and half the time you won’t realize you’re doing it. I am a compost heap, and everything I interact with, every experience I’ve had, gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down, is digested, and excreted by worms, and rots. It’s from that rich, dark humus, the combination of what you encountered, what you know and what you’ve forgotten, that ideas start to grow.”
On writing workshops and MFA programs:
“No one should go into debt to study creative writing.”
“There are in life a few miraculous moments when the right person is there to tell you what you need to hear and you still open enough, impressionable enough, to take it.”
“I learned how to tune my ear to the usefulness and uselessness of other people’s opinions.”
“Every workshop was an explosion of judgment. A third of the class would love a story, a third would rip it to shreds, and a third would sit there staring off into space, no doubt wondering what they were going to have for dinner.”
“…it’s when someone else has their turn at bat that you actually get to see what’s going on…you can learn more, and more quickly, from other people’s missteps that you can from their successes.”
On love, in all its manifestations:
“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.”
“There are always those perfect times with the people we love, those moments of joy and equality that sustain us later on. I am living that time with my husband now. I try to study our happiness so that I will be able to remember it in the future, just in case something happens and we find ourselves in need. These moments are the foundation upon which we build the house that will shelter us into our final years, so that when love calls out, ‘How far would you go for me?’ you can look it in the eye and say truthfully, ‘Farther than you would ever have thought was possible.’”
On love and marriage (at long last) here’s the question to ask yourself before marrying anyone:
“Does he make you a better person?”
And then, in her final essay, “The Mercys,” she describes her long friendship with Sister Nena, a tennis-playing nun who taught young Ann at St. Bernard’s Academy in Nashville. Ann is helping the now elderly nun move into a new apartment. Then Ann lets us in on why Sister Nena is so important to the person she became, the person she is. But I’ll let you read that for yourself and see if you don’t feel a little clench in your throat as I did, especially if you’re a teacher.