If ever I see a plea for recommendations of books about how to be a writer, I raise my hand immediately and offer The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett. It provides everything: technique, advice, encouragement, wisdom. It makes a writing life seem possible, even practical. Perhaps the best thing about it is that it’s just one essay in a collection full of treasure.
‘The tricky thing about being a writer,’ says Ann Patchett in the introduction, ‘or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive. It isn’t their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from.’
With this entirely reasonable attitude, Patchett never dreamed her journalism – usually written to a word count and deadline on a topic of an editor’s choosing – would last the distance. In fact, she had to be persuaded that they deserved to be published in a collection.
Patchett’s more recent collection, These Precious Days, came into existence in a totally different way. She was writing a book – not a novel, which didn’t feel right in the long months of the pandemic, but a book nonetheless. The title essay has become one of the most widely syndicated pieces in modern times. Friends emailed it to friends who’d already received it and still sent it on. It’s the story of an unlikely friendship that developed between Patchett, her husband Karl and their unexpected long-term house guest Sooki, who had flown to Nashville for a clinical trial to treat her cancer, and, like everyone else who happened to be in Nashville, or anywhere for that matter, got stuck.
Patchett knew she had to tell the story of the friendship, and intended it to be a private affair. (She’d learned in her career that you don’t have to share everything you write.) But Sooki’s family and friends saw too much of the friend they feared losing in Patchett’s words for the essay itself to be lost. Patchett agreed and wanted a sturdy, enduring fortress to protect it. So she wrote other essays, just as she’d always done, on the things that mattered to her, the things she saw. Everyday life and people.
Domestic in their origins they may be – although ‘My Year of No Shopping’ and ‘How Knitting Saved My Life. Twice’, for instance, are anything but – to us these essays are rendered so sharp and original that they feel as exotic as the settings in Patchett’s novels such Bel Canto or State of Wonder. I’ve enthused on this site about her most recent novels, Commonwealth and The Dutch House. If you think I love Ann Patchett’s novels – and I do – then you should know that I am obsessed with her essays. I reread them all the time, laughing a lot (they are so funny), learning something new each time. Often it’s about writing or publishing – she’s seen the rough and the smooth – but often it’s about how to live.
This life now, she seems to be saying in These Precious Days, is all we have and needs to be celebrated. Whether or not you hold that view you will relish being in the moment for every page of both these wonderful, nourishing books.