Friday, March 7, 2014

Ann Patchett's Essays

For the spring semester at Florida Gulf Coast University I am auditing a class in the journalism department. Some of the students would love to trade places with me. Auditing means that I don't have to do the homework, though I've tried to keep up. I thought I was taking the class to learn more about technology. Instead, I am picking up plenty of tips on crystal clear writing.

We are currently in the middle of an assignment called an "immersion essay." How fortunate that I finally got the email from my library telling me that "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage," by Ann Patchett was finally in for me. I've always been a huge Patchett fan. I've led book discussions on two of her novels, "Bel Canto" and "State of Wonder," and still think that "The Patron Saint of Liars" is an amazing debut. But this essay collection is notable because it allows us into the author's head in a way that a novel simply can't do.

I plan to share a couple of these essays with my class as perfect examples of what I think an immersion essay should look like. My favorite, "My Road to Hell Was Paved," came about as a magazine assignment that Ann calls "her plan to infiltrate RV culture and expose it for the gas-guzzling, fitness-eschewing underbelly my editor knows it to be." I laughed out loud. My sentiments exactly, I thought.

The plan is to rent a Winnebago in Billings, Montana, drive through the Badlands and then on to Yellowstone Park. To make it even more adventurous, she's going to do this with Karl, the long-time lover with whom she's just broken up. Talk about stress; exceedingly close quarters, dodgy driving conditions, and proximity to other campers with whom one has little or nothing in common.

"The Wall" is another immersion essay about Ann's decision to apply for a position with the LA Police Dept. The back story is a balanced examination of the ferociously bad press the police department was garnering in the years leading up to the Rodney King tragedy when riots over claims of police brutality brought the city to its knees. Ann's dad, to whom she's very close, was a thirty-year veteran of the department so her loyalty to it was never in doubt.

Many of these essays poignantly reminisce on a less than idyllic childhood. Her parents divorced when she was four years old and her mom moved Ann and her sister from LA to Nashville, along with a boyfriend who would become step dad number one. "How to Read a Christmas Story" brought back memories of my own difficult Christmases as an inexperienced stepmother defending two little girls from selfish, battling parents.

Ann Patchett's writing is so perfect, so honest, especially when she's describing her own failings, that I wanted to sit right down and take another look at the memoir I started years ago in a NanoWrimo moment. Whether she's speaking about her family, her relief at never having had children, her first marriage, (the one that wasn't happy), her beloved dog, Rosie, or her husband Karl, readers will sense that a very private person is letting them, and only them, in on a secret.

To my fellow students I say, this is a must read. Ann Patchett's advice and reflections on her writing career are invaluable. Her take on the editing process is spot on. Everything that we're learning in class is there. She says that many of the essays she's proudest of "were made from the things that were at hand - writing and love, work and loss." I guess that means that the old adage, "write what you know," still holds true. And that's what readers will love about this collection. It's true.

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