Sunday, October 05, 2008

Anne Patchett

Last night I went to listen to Anne Patchett. It was a sort of victory for me because I hate crowds, hate parking downtown, and hate being a “fan.” In spite of all that I drove myself downtown, parked, and attended a very interesting lecture by the author of Bel Canto and Truth and Beauty, among others. I’m very glad I did.

It’s always encouraging to hear from a writer who was determined to write and eventually succeeded. So just that was worthwhile. But she said some interesting things, which I’ll quote here just for you.

How odd is it that people pat you on the hand when you are a writer and say, “I hope you keep on writing, dear.” Can you imagine anyone patting their doctor on the way out of the exam room and saying, “I hope you keep on with what you’re doing”?

From a book she loves called Buddhism Without Beliefs: The creative process (for anything—writing, cooking, running, playing the cello) consists of three steps. 1) Commitment, 2) Technical Accomplishment, and 3) Imagination. In that order. With writing, people sometimes get those steps backwards, or think that #3 is all.

Imagination is a muscle. Do you use it?

Imagination is what makes us empathetic creatures.

“I am a professional imaginer.” I bring my emotional life to the book, not facts from my life (emotional truth, not true events).

Fiction can be true in the way that non-fiction cannot. You are God, you tell the truth of that action. Be true to the action, the narrative. You have to let the train get to where it’s going.

When asked, “Where do your images come from?” Commitment and practice. “It’s the way you train your brain to see the world.”

She talked a little bit about how her life seems to be imitating her life. At least twice after she has published a book, real people whose lives are surprisingly similar to characters she’s created have shown up in her life. For example, an opera singer just like the one she created in Bel Canto contacted her because she had read the book after all of her acquaintances had told her to read it “because that’s you!” Turns out that yes, the character and the real opera singer were surprisingly similar. And now Anne and the real singer are best friends. It happened again with another character from another book.

So here’s the weird thing. I just read Patchett’s memoir, Truth and Beauty, this year. It had been on my list for a year or two because my friend Kathy had recommended it. Shortly after I met Kathy, when I was first starting to get sick and no one knew what was wrong and I was convinced it was cancer (because of the family history), Kathy was reading this book, and she said, “Isn’t this weird? I am a memoirist and you are a poet. And I am reading this memoir about the friendship between a memoirist and a poet. And in this book, the poet is sick.” (She, kindly, didn’t tell me that the poet eventually dies of a drug OD.) But the point was that it was odd that the book mirrored our own friendship.

Anne Patchett said, “I guess I just imagine the kinds of people I want to know, write a book about them, and then they fall into my life.”

I didn’t get a chance to ask a question, but if I had, I would have asked, “Are you one of those writers who is haunted by characters, full-fledged, or do you construct characters?” It seems to me that it is odd how writers are one or the other type. (There are so many books on constructing character!) My problem is that I am neither. I am not haunted by some interesting characters who want me to tell their stories. But I hate the thought of sitting down and just sort of building a character like out of Legos. Which, I suppose, is why I am pretty much the author of nothing worth mentioning. Sigh.



Ang said...

I really wish I could have come. I'm jealous. Sounds like it was a great night, and thanks for sharing your notes.

Michelle said...

I love your reports. You always bring me so much knowledge!

And I meant to comment on your irrational fears that you do have a fabulous book in you if you just keep writing. I KNOW IT. We are young yet; you'll do it.

Anonymous said...

That sounds like it was fascinating. Thanks for braving the crowds and downtown and fandom fears to be able to share your notes with us.

(I was about to say "and apparently you also braved snow," but I thought to do a Google image search first and, yeah, the snow picture is the first one.)

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you were able to go to a literary event. Marilynne Robinson was outstanding! She read from Housekeeping and then gave a very candid question and answer forum. It was simply wonderful. My favorite parts of her visit were the radio interview I was able to do, the visit to the women's prison, and the drive to the airport yesterday morning. I'm sorry you missed this, but glad you could go to Ann's presentation--Kathryn

Darlene said...

Ahh, Kathryn, I hope I get more than that! Tell me, tell me!

Kristi Stevens said...

It sounds amazing. I don't think you need to be haunted or a constructor.
I think the best writer are a little bit of both. Plus there are lots of other ways to find character. If there were only two ways to find it, it would be a very boring world.