Though Ann Patchett received her MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it is the writerly wisdom from her teachers at Sarah Lawrence College—Allan Gurganus, Russell Banks and the legendary short-story writer Grace Paley—that she mentions in her short e-book, The Getaway Car.
Paley, who was a political activist, taught the future bestselling author of Bel Canto and last summer’s State of Wonder how to have character and something worthwhile to say. Banks (The Sweet Hereafter) taught her to delve deep in her fiction, rather than rely on her cleverness. As for Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All), she says: “Most of what I know about writing I learned from Allan, and it is a testament to my great good luck (heart-stopping, in retrospect, such dumb luck) that it was his classroom I turned up in when I first started to write stories.”
From Gurganus she learned that a writer must practice, i.e., write many stories, if he wishes to improve his skills. “Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap,” she says. “Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath.”
Patchett’s fans will be familiar with the impact that Gurganus had on her work, and additional details of her writing journey, which she’s shared in her other nonfiction books—Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with writer Lucy Grealy, as well as What Now?, another short, inspiring work. But, ever the consummate storyteller, she shares plenty of fresh advice in her accessible, witty style. “The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies,” she remarks at one point.
Elsewhere in The Getaway Car, Patchett talks about the gap between the beautiful story in her imagination and the one she actually gets down on the page. She suggests that you forgive yourself for the discrepancy, as she forgives herself: “I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.”
Patchett doles out such sensible advice, and yet sometimes it’s these simple truths that we need to be reminded of. “Why is it that we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration?” she asks.
As she takes readers through the writing of her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, she describes her process, which she explains has remained mostly intact for her subsequent novels. Contrary to what some other writers advise, Patchett suggests that writing your story in the order in which it will be read is key. It will keep you interested in your story during the writing of it and save you time in the editing process later, she says. In this way, she can forgo major structural changes during revision and concentrate on making minor adjustments.
One part of her novel-writing process that has changed since writing her first is the addition of research, which she calls “the greatest perk of the job.” To prevent using research as a means of procrastinating and to avoid overwhelming readers with too many unnecessary details, she prefers to conduct research after she’s started writing or even after she’s finished. Then she can go back and correct any mistakes.
In addition to her many practical tips, Patchett describes her own writing struggles and offers encouraging words to aspiring and working writers. For example, she tells them not to worry about revisiting the same material in multiple works. Don’t fight it, she says; “thrive within that thing you know deeply and care about most of all.” And she advises persistence: “Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.”
Patchett had a brief career as a creative-writing instructor, and you can’t help wishing that she were still teaching, so that you might have an opportunity to take a class with her. Perhaps carefully reading her books, including The Getaway Car, can be just as instructive, just as entertaining as I imagine her classroom would be.
Sarah C. Lange is the associate editor of The Writer magazine.Originally Published