Writer friends, here is a book you must read although you wouldn’t know by the title: Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I read anything Patchett writes (Bel Canto, State of Wonder) but I was especially attracted by the title. I, too, have a happy marriage and I’m tired of reading about dysfunctional ones.
It turns out to be a collection of her essays, including the eponymous one. But most of what I have read so far has had to do with writing. That’s why I can’t wait to tell you about this book even though I am only 19 percent into it, according to my Kindle. I haven’t even come to the essay that made me buy it
Reading the introduction and the first essays, especially “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life,” has been extremely timely for me as I struggle my way into writing what I think may be a book. I am highlighting whole paragraphs, like this one:
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.
On the one hand I wish I had come across a book like this when I was younger. Maybe I would have started earlier and become a real writer. I wish I had happened upon the right mentors at the right time, like Patchett did. I wish I had known, and that everybody around me had known, when I was a kid, that I wanted to be a writer. As she says, this was perhaps her greatest gift. But being a writer was not in the realm of possibility for me, a little Mennonite girl growing up on a farm in the 1950s. My goodness.
So here I am, at 69, struggling to write anyhow. The thing is, the struggle I go through is the same as what Patchett describes. The self-doubt, the feeling of inadequacy, the distance between the conception and the writing, the effort always to do something beyond your capability, the profound dissatisfaction with the final product (you’ve killed it, she says, with your own hand) are not peculiar to me. I should know this by now, I’ve read enough writers about writing. But her essay catches me in the act of going through this inevitable charade as I start to work on what I hope will be my second book. I can’t. I hate it. And yet I must. I love it.
I am not capable of writing at Patchett’s level, for sure, or at the level of most of the writers whose books I feast on every evening. I profoundly admire and envy them. But I write what I can and what I must.