We Write the Way We Talk
Quite a number of years ago, I happened upon a novel by a writer unknown to me: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Many years before hostage-takings became page-one affairs, Ms Patchett, an American born in Tennessee, set her book during a fictitious hostage-taking at an embassy in Peru (remember the Shining Path?). The hostages, a various lot since they were captured during an embassy party – some were there just for the food and drink – learn to live with their situation, and even find beauty in it. The Stockholm Syndrome does not necessarily play a role here; Patchett is too subtle for that. As the title suggests, music ends up providing salvation for prisoners and jailers alike.
Then, suddenly, Patchett made a return to my life as a reader with a collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (2013). Which marriage is that? Hers to writing? Her two documented ones to two different gentlemen? Or is the title a nod to Tolstoy’s famed sentence from Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Whatever the case, the voice of this book is a marvel: close by, warm, trustworthy, with a share of self-doubt. When people tell me they have trouble writing, one of the things I tell them is, “Just talk it. In English we write like we talk.” (Grammar error noted.) Now, strictly speaking, that may not be completely true, but one of the marvels of English is its lack of a literary language. All registers and levels are allowed in a book; all are literary. I learned that Reading Hemingway in High school. And Patchett’s sure voice in this collection of essays is further proof.
One of the pieces, “Fact vs. Fiction,” struck me because it touched upon a theme that some of the participants of the Pointe Claire Library program have brought up: how do we write about other people we know, especially family members or others close to us? Ms Patchett was blessed to have a friend named Lucy, about whom she wrote a book, Truth & Beauty. To understand the title, you have to know that Lucy Grealy had a disfiguring cancer from a young age and died after undergoing a number of unsuccessful operations to put her face back together. But she did not stand idly by. She wrote a book of her own: Autobiography of a Face. What Patchett does, and this is where she can be of help to us, is to juxtapose the two books: hers, written from the outside, if you like, since she was describing Lucy as a character, and Lucy’s, seemingly written from the inside, since she was narrating her own life.
The issue, then, is which book is truer to the experience? You know the answer: both. Writing about someone’s life not only changes your life, it changes the subject’s life; he or she becomes transformed. Soon you are in the realm of fiction, like it or not. That’s what I tell people who hesitate about writing about their family. Writing is a transformative act, and soon you will not be you and they will not be they, so go ahead and try.
I’m glad I have an ally in Ann Patchett. And by the way, there are loads of other good essays in this collection.