In a departure from the more difficult reading of late, I’ve returned to another favorite genre: memoir. In this case, the book I just finished was Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. The book is actually a collection of her non-fiction work, basically the writing that paid her bills before her novels could do that on her own. But while her rule for novels in “write what you want to learn about,” her non-fiction rule is usually closer to the standard “write what you know.” So the reader gets to see a great deal of Patchett in this collection, which is all to the good.
I should say here that I am far from an unbiased source. I’ve long been an admirer of Patchett’s novels. She’s in my top authors list and I’ve read four of her six novels, with another waiting on the shelf. (Of these, The Magician’s Assistant is my favorite – you should really read it.) But I hadn’t read any of her non-fiction work. Fortunately, I was not disappointed. Her reflections on writing are excellent and made me think more about how, what, and how often I write. Her openness about her marriages and other deeply personal relationships (grandmother, father, best friend, nun, dog) was simultaneously arresting, refreshing, and inviting. She also has a knack for selling place and event (Tennessee, theater opera, bookstore). She says in the chapter on fiction writing that she only writes one kind of story: strangers forced together by circumstance. If that’s true (and so far it seems to hold up), then in this collection we can see the elements that make her a master of that story type: it’s all about relationships and setting. Watching her exercise that craft in telling true stories is a delight.