This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
Ann Patchett (HarperCollins, 2013)
This is my perfect Ann Patchett book. Though I like her writing, I found Bel Canto, the novel she is best known for, so stressful that I've never read another one. In her essay about fiction writing, she makes the reason clear: she read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain in high school. "That novel's basic plot–a group of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a society in confinement–became the story line for just about everything I've ever written."
Lucky for me, this collection of essays represents writing Patchett did to pay the bills, on the way to making a living from her novels. (She had the credentials to teach literature and writing, but that didn't leave nearly enough mental energy for creativity; and when she waited tables, she was simply too tired.) She cut her teeth in Seventeen, and graduated to Vogue, Elle, and GQ as her teenage days receded farther into the past. She cultivated a reputation as a reliable free-lancer, able to deliver copy on time and at the required length. In addition to the discipline of writing professionally, she developed a thick skin about the editorial process. "Somewhere along the line I learned to experience only the smallest, most private stabbing sensation when I watched my best sentences cut from an article because they did not advance the story. Ultimately this skill came to benefit my fiction as well." Not that editors cut her fiction, but she could see for herself what kept the story moving and what didn't.
Essays from the latter part of that career, when she had more say over her topics, amount to a catalog of her life and loves: her grandmother, her dog, an elderly nun who was her first-grade teacher. To all of these she brings a quality of love, care, and attention that turn out to be what life is made of. When the Washington Post Magazine sends her to write about trying to join the Los Angeles Police Department, she brings an ear for story, and a delightful brio about climbing over six-foot walls. She's a lover of books, going so far as to invest in an independent bookstore in Nashville, which is still going strong.
Even though novels aren't ordinarily my cup of tea, Patchett's essay about writing them is full of interest, and applicable to many other kinds of artistic work. On avoiding the distractions of novelty: "I made a pledge that I wouldn't start the sexy new novel I imagined until I had finished the tired old warhorse I was dragging myself through at present." On writing the books she wants to read: "If you wind up boring yourself, you can pretty much bank on the fact you're going to bore your reader." On challenging herself: "Make it hard. Set your sights on something that you aren't quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually. You can also go for broke and take on all three." On sticking to it: "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."
The title essay is actually, and wonderfully, a story about divorce; not just her own disastrous first marriage, but her parents' and her grandmother's. "We weren't the products of our parents' happy marriages; we were the flotsam of their divorces. In the house of my mother and stepfather, my sister and I were the spoils of war." The titular happy marriage came after an eleven year courtship, during which Patchett steadily declared that she was not interested in getting married. Was she wasting time, all that time, or did everything turn out as it was meant to? Does it matter? "We are, on this earth, so incredibly small, in the history of time, in the crowd of the world, we are practically invisible, not even a dot, and yet we have each other to hold on to."
Published by email, November 1, 2020