As a writer, I was grateful to listen to Roger Rosenblatt interview Anne Patchett, a woman of candor, on her writing process during the 4th day of Road Scholar’s Creative Expression conversations. “Write what you know,” is a bedrock adage among writers. Au Contraire, Anne Patchett takes risks in her choices. She writes on subjects she wants to explore and about which she wants to learn.
“Inspiration was a real thing to me when I was eighteen, and my analogy at this point is inspiration is a match,” Patchett said. “You’ve got to have a match,” she continued, “ but, at fifty-two years old, I have spent my life in a warm house. You don’t spend your life in a warm house because of a match. You spend your life in a warm house because of your ability to get up and split wood.”
Huh, I thought, split wood? What is she saying? The analogy goes to her belief that writing is all about going to work and the experience of fueling what evolves. She explained, “I think if I sit around and wait for someone to whisper in my ears, I would get a lot of knitting done.”
Patchett approaches her novels by developing the characters first. In the Magician’s Assistant, she envisioned a magician in a tuxedo and his assistant in a sequin dress, because it was “sort of sexy. “I was halfway through the book when I realized I knew nothing about magic, and then I stopped and I did a bunch of research,” she said.
To my amusement, she said, “ What I discovered was that I hated magic. I was writing a book about magic and I never thought about it beyond how my characters would look on stage.” I leaned in as she spoke of how she confronted what she did not know. To my mind, she went far beyond “chopping wood” in that the woodpile is visible; whereas, in the development of characters and their plot, one needs to mine the invisible. I write nonfiction and cannot imagine myself writing a work of fiction about a character who dies in the first sentence of the book.
Patchett spoke of her nonfiction book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Divorced after a year of marriage, Patchett was reluctant to marry a second time. She dated her current husband for eleven years and decided to marry only when he became very ill. Pragmatic to the core, she decided that as his girlfriend, she could not make critical decisions regarding his health. They married. “Six weeks later, he was totally fine.” She mused, “I don’t know if I would have gotten married if it wasn’t for that.”
In reading the reviews, it’s clear that in contrast to fiction, Patchett shaped the book about what she knew— her marriage, her bookstore, her writing. I was grateful to learn that she was open to writing in a new genre and to dig into learning how to evolve her story as a memoir. I’ve added it to my list.