Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

Tracy Kidder is, of course, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning, National-Book-Award-winning, Robert-F.-Kennedy-Award-winning author of The Soul of a New Machine, House, Among School Children, Old Friends, Home Town, Mountains Beyond Mountains, My Detachment, and Strength in What Remains. 

Richard Todd has been his editor for thirty-five years. They subtitle this joint effort "The Art of Nonfiction," and add a cover line: "Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing an editing," which it is.

They discuss three major forms nonfiction forms: narratives, essays, and memoirs, but it is not really a "how to" book. (It does have, however, a  short, useful "Notes on Usage" section in the back.) They assume the reader is bright enough to draw his/her own conclusions from the anecdotes and examples they give of their writing and working lives.

One of the book's lessons: Be lucky. That Kidder, then 27, as an aspiring free-lance writer connected with Todd, then 32, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, was extraordinarily fortunate. Todd was willing to work with Kidder for weeks, through dozens of rewrites, as they tried to hammer an article into shape. It is difficult to imagine any editor today spending time and attention on an unknown writer (or even a known one, but that may be caused by the writer's hubris, not the editor's overwork).

One chapter is titled "Art and Commerce." In it Kidder writes, "Think of the many wonderful writers who haven't earned a living by writing. Anyone who does earn a living by writing, and does not acknowledge the power of luck, has to be deluded." 

The last chapter, "Being Edited and Editing" is worth the price of the book ($26) to any serious writer. Here's Kidder on being edited: "Editing isn't just something that happens to you. You have to learn how to be edited. . . .Young writers are unlikely to possess the modicum of selflessness that a good editor must have, that makes it possible for one person to act in the best interests of another work." At one time, Kidder like many of us needed a first sentence to be perfect before going on and spent (wasted) whole days and nights getting nowhere. So he stopped doing that. He now writes first drafts as quickly as he can. "Writing as fast as possible would prevent remorse for having written badly. I would take every path that looked interesting, and keep myself from going back and reading what I'd written, let alone trying to fix it." [This is the NaNoWriMo approach to writing, by the way, and because I am putting the final touches on a novel that started as a NaNoWriMo project, I can testify that it works.]

Here is Todd on editing: "There are two kinds of pleasures for editors. One is acquisition, the collector's pleasure. The other is working with writers. It is like the difference between buying an antique car in mint condition or buying one that needs work . . . As a writer, of course, what you really want is someone strong on both counts."

A fascinating, generous, helpful book.

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