How I write: Tracy Kidder
Published: February 27, 2004
|Tracy Kidder has found much of the stuff of his rich nonfiction narratives in everyday life--the building of a house, two friends in a nursing home, a year in a fifth-grade classroom, the sociology of a small town. What he brings to his topics is a fly-on-the-wall immersion in the reporting, and a clarity and solidity in the writing. His early book The Soul of a New Machine (1981) won a Pulitzer and National Book Award for its compelling look at the creation of a superminicomputer. His latest, Mountains Beyond Mountains, portrays Dr. Paul Farmer, a remarkable infectious-disease expert unfazed by the obstacles of improving public health in poor areas of the world. Kidder, 58, attended Harvard and earned an MFA from the University of Iowa. He lives with his wife in New England. |
Other credits include Home Town (1999); Old Friends (1993); Among School Children (1989); and House (1985).
I think in the beginning I started writing because it seemed like a way to impress girls in college. This was back in the '60s, and writing was still a rather romantic endeavor. I was sort of besotted with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner. It just seemed like a wonderful thing to do. I was always read to as a child, and I find the world easiest to understand in stories.
I have an office in my house in Massachusetts and a place in Maine, where I have a really beautiful little office in a cottage.
For me, the first draft of something is really hard to do. It's usually no good anyway, and overly long. What I tend to do is write really fast so as to prevent remorse for having written badly. At least it didn't take a long time, I say to myself.
It's that rough draft where I have the hardest time staying put. I usually write 10 drafts or so of a book. But toward the end, or somewhere in there, it's hard for me to do anything else. Nowadays I can't do it the way I used to, but I used to put in16-hour days sometimes. I loved it, and I still love it.
|On doing narrative nonfiction:|
For me, the crucial thing for any narrative is character. Give me a good character and I usually feel pretty happy.
I get a huge number of notes, then I have to make some sense of them. With Mountains Beyond Mountains, the notes were much richer. I had wonderful scenes, and I knew I wouldn't be able to use all of them. So you're always looking for the one scene that will stand for two dozen.
One thing I've learned has to do with the kinds of notes I think you want to take. They should be extremely concrete. I try not to write down what I'm thinking or feeling at the moment; I want to get down what people say, how things look and how people look, gestures, all the stuff you can see and hear and smell. I try to avoid generalization. These notes, if they're done right, will become tremendous memory stimuli. They can put me right back there.
I used to make indices for my notes. ... What I did [with Mountains] was sort of grit my teeth and say, "Oh, I want to type these notes into the computer." I had about 80 notebooks. I typed them all. It took me a month or two, but it was worth it. At some point, I have to get the notes into my mind so I can move among them. And this seemed the most efficient way of doing that. I began to commit them to memory as I retyped them, and I could find them so much more easily.
It's important to know something about the world, so as to have something to write about. The other thing is to read--I think it's terribly important to read. And the third is to write. For young writers, there's no other way to learn how to write or what it is you want to write than writing. You must write.
A lot of times I don't begin to understand what I've seen until I start to write. The attempt to write begins to teach me what else I need to know.
--Posted Feb. 27, 2004