Thursday, June 27, 2013

Good Prose is an Art

Like many of my library co-workers, I started adult life as an English major - creative writing, to be exact.  I imagined the artistic life I would lead in my mountain retreat, hound dogs lazing at my feet while I effortlessly tossed off remarkable prose. But, as those who write know, good writing is hard work and requires as much discipline as inspiration. So, as the years passed I accepted that "I coulda been a writer" but instead am a reader who enjoys literary fiction, mysteries, and - when I hear those hounds howling - books exploring the writer's craft.

My latest muse is Tracy Kidder - winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and co-author of Good Prose : The Art of Nonfiction. With his editor Richard Todd (a relationship that began at The Atlantic Monthly in the early 70's), Kidder explores his maturation as a writer, the importance of beginnings (oftentimes the best "hook" is understated), story over subject, narrative strategies, memoirs, essays and the fact that the tale will dictate the telling.

What makes this book so valuable to me is the editorial point of view - including the last chapter entitled "Being Edited and Editing." Todd contends that editing is a "wifely trade" requiring listening, supporting and intuiting, noting that "writers assert; editors react." Kidder's claim that he struggles most with the first draft baffles Todd, who believes the first draft is the most liberating because it is a venue for your brightest, scattered thoughts. They both believe that writing is revision and "all prose responds to work."

Having been the victim of heartless editors who chuckle cruelly while wielding their red pens, I especially enjoyed an anecdote about author-editor role reversal. When editing Todd's book - which started as cultural criticism and spiraled into a personal memoir and essay - Kidder responded to the manuscript with "S**t-can this." It took Todd three weeks to get over that comment and I can only speculate on how many revisions.

Vicki Ann

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