The Writing Life
The book sneaks up on me, like the person you recognize from across the room but aren’t quite sure you know. These Precious Days by Ann Patchett. I’ve not read her novels, but the writing’s familiar, so much so I think maybe I’ve read this collection of essays before. This happened to me recently when reading Joan Didion’s book Let Me Tell You What I Mean, which, as it turn out, I had, read and even purchased before, maybe the single best example of pandemic fog I’ve experienced to date. And so, with Patchett’s most recent book I’m all but sure I’ve read her first piece Fathers, in the New Yorker. And then later, when reading The Year of No Shopping, again I think, I’ve definitely read this.
“Don’t you love it?” Cheryl says when she sees me with the book. “I find myself re-reading it now and again. It just might be my favorite book.”
When I hear this, I start to think, “Yes maybe.” Maybe I will read this again, now with a growing sense of the book’s lasting power. This not simply a collection of essays, but well-articulated reasons for living—guiding principles expertly disguised in her comforting voice. Each piece feels more and more like a close friend whose embrace makes everything better, Patchett’s style so generous and easy, we feel she’s simply thinking out loud.
“Even though it says ‘signed first edition’, it’s not signed,” my lament when I first crack open the book. Because of this, I go back to The Booksmith but don’t find another on the shelf with tell-tale sticker on the cover.
Is the book any worse because of this omission? Does the missing hand of the author play a role in my story. The more I read, the more I think so. The meant to be, but isn’t nature so many things; until we make it happen. By the end, last page turned, I’m sure I will seek her autograph. Hoping for a moment where I will sense her present with my book, after which I will certainly read it again.
“You should take it back,” Mary says. “They always have one or two tucked away in the back.”
“They do?” I ask, skeptical. Why would a bookstore keep signed copies, and not sell them all? Doesn’t make sense.
Precious Days doesn’t instantly grab me as some other books on writing and life do. Books like Bird by Bird, Big Magic, and Wild. I wade into the book thinking it not for me, until her story about the life and times of a well known cartoon dog draws me in to the point where I’m fully present, one with the writing and The Red Baron. I sense simpatico with an invisible community of writers she’s tapping into. One doesn’t have to be famous to be kindred spirit. Three Fathers and A Year of No Shopping I skip, because I’ve read them before — one in The New Yorker, and the other I’m sure in the Times. I know this because Mary and didn’t shop for a year after first reading her piece. Patchett’s acknowledgements at the end of this book corroborate my inkling. Yes, Ann’s published some of these before, and so I’m not crazy. Or at least not yet.
My routine mimics some of what’s Patchett writes about: carve out the time, establish the routine, heed the call to be present in the golden hour of morning when the words come naturally. Still, unlike Patchett, I’ve not put in the work.
“You have to put your butt in the seat,” my sister-in-law Cheryl says. “Which is how I know I’m not a writer. I’ve only taken jobs where my butt’s out of the seat.”
Funny, and makes sense. Writing ten hours a day would surely result in injury. What I do more of a dabble, a hobby versus a calling. Modest reading and writing. Five hundred words often doesn’t even take an hour. My routine pretty locked at this point. Up at six thirty or so. Cup of tea, then coffee. Reading non-fiction books, or something in the New Yorker, but not the news. Something to eat from our local bakery. And finally, an hour or so with blank page to kick-off the day.
Reading Patchett gives me hope, inspiration, which is why I keep going—channeling the writing life of authors. Admittedly, I may never write a novel, or even a book for that matter. The fiction she describes not in me. Patchett’s ability to hold a character close, and just follow the story onto the page not in me. No, my imagination simply doesn’t run wild like that. In addition, I’ve not read enough great work to front-load a machine designed to kick out pages and pages of something others might want to read. No, I write about my life’s experience, and embrace Patchett, Didion and Strayed for their willingness to do the same.