Upon diving into this delightful collection of essays, we encounter author Ann Patchett's intense admiration for short stories detailed in her "Introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2006." As editor of that year's collection of the finest short stories (her choice), she says, "The stories offered me their companionship, each one a complete experience in a limited amount of space." The same is certainly true of her collection of personal essays.
We start out learning about Patchett's quest to become a writer. She wryly notes that writers make art but also must pay their bills. First, she believed she should do physical work that would leave her mind occupied with her tales, but she soon learned that being a waitress or a cook depleted her energy. Her next job as a teacher presented a new conundrum: dealing with the creativity of her students left her with no desire to grapple with her own. She went on to write nonfiction articles for magazines, and this was a perfect fit: satisfying her curiosity, giving her adventures, and teaching her the joys of built-in restrictions not encountered in novel writing (such as word count). We have many of those pieces to thank for this particular collection.
"I can't imagine anyone not loving this collection, staying up late and turning pages frantically while simultaneously dreading reaching the final page."
Patchett knew from childhood that she would be a writer, and here she passes on the lessons she has learned along the way from her beginnings as a poor student, whose ability to pen stories saved her from having to repeat grades, to the award-winning, bestselling novel and nonfiction writer she is today. In "The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life," she tells us she learned that writing a novel is a long, slow, steady slog. Her experience is that she can't think too much about how far away the end is and she can't jump on every new idea for a different story that beckons her away from her present manuscript. In addition, she aims to write a book that she wants to read --- and to always make sure she isn't boring herself. She also dishes on whether she believes characters can take on a life of their own, plus her opinions on writer's block, commitment and persistence. (Honestly, if you aspire to write, you should buy the book for this essay alone, which is chockful of advice and inspiration…although you won't want to miss the other pieces.)
It is fascinating to read of Patchett's early years, presented through a prism of stories and divorce, which mold not only her identity as an author but also her attitude toward marriage. She recounts her Christmases as the child of divorced parents, complete with stepsiblings and the yearning for her far-away father. The Christmas she was 12, her father gave her, via a telephone call, a gift that she treasured every Christmas since (and plans to treasure every Christmas to come) while also contributing to her identity as a writer.
I can't imagine anyone not loving this collection, staying up late and turning pages frantically while simultaneously dreading reaching the final page. Readers can expect an emotional journey. Some of the essays made me laugh or nod in agreement, while others made my heart ache. (Full confession: As a testament to the power of Patchett's writing to stir empathy, I cannot read "Dog Without End." My attempts to get past the third page sent me beyond despondency.) According to the author, the recurring theme visited in her novels is the gathering together of a group of strangers, who then form connections --- an apt description of the ability of this book to link readers through her writings.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on November 8, 2013