Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #105: “Good Prose” by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

Dear kids,

My Highlights:

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

  • We should acknowledge some other predispositions. We’re sticklers on fact. Nonfiction means much more than accuracy, but it begins with not making things up. If it happened on Tuesday, that’s when it happened, even if Thursday would make for a tidier story. (And in our experience, at least, Tuesday usually turns out to make for a more interesting story.) This is not to confuse facts with the truth, a subject we will deal with. We also believe in the
  • To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them—by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not know (why else presume to write?), but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge
  • Good writing creates a dialogue between writer and reader, with the imagined reader at moments questioning, criticizing, and sometimes, you hope, assenting. What you “know” isn’t something you can pull from a shelf and deliver. What you know in prose is often what you discover in the course of writing it, as in the best of conversations with a friend—as if you and the reader do the discovering together. Writers are told that they must “grab” or “hook” or “capture” the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader. Montaigne writes: “I do not want a man to use his strength to get my attention.” Beginnings are an exercise in limits. You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away. You don’t expect the doctor to cure you at once, but the doctor can surely alienate you at once, with brusqueness or bravado or indifference or confusion. There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning. The most memorable first line in American literature is “Call me Ishmael.”
  • The “mystery and surprise” can be genuine, shared
  • I tend to worry now when a story is easily summarized and in summary sounds interesting or, even worse, exciting. This may be superstition, but I believe there is one sure dictum about judging one’s material, a cocktail party rule so to speak: it isn’t always a bad sign when a potential story doesn’t talk well.
  • It is a misleading truism that drama comes from conflict. Conflict in stories is generally understood as an external contest between good guys and bad guys. But to say that Hamlet depicts the conflict between a prince and usurper king is (obviously) to oversimplify that rich, mysterious drama, indeed to misunderstand it completely. The most important conflict often happens within a character, or within the narrator. The story begins with an inscrutable character and ends with a person the author and reader understand better than before, a series of events that yields, however quietly, a dramatic truth. One might call this kind of story a narrative of revelation.
  • Revelation, someone’s learning something, is what transforms event into story. Without revelation, a story of high excitement leaves us asking, “Is that all?”
  • For a story to have a chance to live, it is essential only that there be something important at stake, a problem that confronts the characters or confronts the reader in trying to understand them. The unfolding of the problem and its resolution are the real payoff. A car chase is not required.
  • In Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” for example, the nominal subject is the writer’s errand in the early evening, a stroll to a stationer’s store in search of a pencil. The stroll becomes the occasion for thought about the nature of solitude, and about the consolidation of self in the home versus the dissolution of self in the city. The small experience keeps ramifying into something else. She remembers standing on the doorstep of the stationer’s and thinks, “It is always an adventure to enter a new room, for the lives and characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and directly we enter it we taste some new wave of emotion.”
  • All the genres blur, but none is blurrier than the essay,
  • The line between essay and memoir is particularly porous.
  • Although many are simplistic, all rules of writing share a worthy goal: clear and vigorous prose. Most writers want to achieve that. And most want to achieve something more, the distinction that is called a style. It’s an elusive goal, but the surest way to approach it is by avoiding the many styles that offer themselves to you. The world brims over with temptations for the writer, modish words, unexamined phrases, borrowed tones, and the habits of thought they all represent. The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement. Only by rejecting what comes too easily can you clear a space for yourself.
  • That’s the real problem with these sentences filled with nouns as adjectives—not that they violate a grammatical rule, but that they violate normal rhythms of speech. Good readers and good writers use both eyes and ears. And for a reader who hears the words, the shorter sentence actually takes longer to register. It is hard to hear, and thus the reader resists it. Sometimes longer is shorter. The habit of compression,
  • Breeziness has become for many the literary mode of first resort, a ready-to-wear means to seeming fresh and authentic. The style is catchy, and catching, like any other fashion. Writers should be cautious with this or any other stylized jauntiness—especially young writers, to whom the tone tends to come easily. The colloquial writer seeks intimacy, but the discerning reader, resisting that friendly hand on the shoulder, that winning grin, is apt to back away.
  • The initial dependent clause is a dubious construction under the best of circumstances. A sentence built on it is usually weaker than a straightforward declarative sentence. A devoted husband, he bought her a diamond
  • Yet it is undeniable that good writing must have a human sound. Maybe that is the more modest word to keep in mind: sound. You try to attune yourself to the sound of your own writing. If you can’t imagine yourself saying something aloud, then you probably shouldn’t write it. That is not the same as saying, “Write the way you talk.” If we all did that, civilization would be in even worse shape than it is. This is closer: Write the way you talk on your best day. Write the way you would like to talk. Sometimes it will happen, in the middle
  • A writer who wants to write and to be published successfully has to try to cultivate a certain doubleness of being. When you are writing, you have to think of yourself as a writer and not as a commodity. But when your book is published, it becomes a product. Over the years publishers and agents have become increasingly sophisticated at promoting books, and to let pride keep you from cooperating in their efforts would be churlish and self-destructive.
  • Every book has to be in part its own reward. In happy moments one realizes that the best work is done when one’s eye is simply on the work, not on its consequences, or on oneself. It is something done for its own sake. It is, in Lewis Hyde’s term, a gift.
  • dispiriting place. David Foster Wallace was admired by many of his fellow writers, and though his own highest ambitions may have been reserved for his fiction, some admired him as much for the witty, compulsively intelligent prose of his essays and reportage. At the New York memorial service for him, the novelist Zadie Smith quoted him as having said, “… the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose: the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love, instead of the part that just wants to be loved.” 8
  • I remember in college reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon and studying a note that he left in the manuscript: “Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted with rewriting. Don’t look—rewrite from mood.” I reread those lines so often, trying to understand them, that they stuck in my memory.
  • I was twenty-seven and he was only thirty-two, but I recognized him as a member of an older generation, an older generation, that is, of Americans who went to college before the Vietnam War and the matriculation of the baby boomers, whom Todd once described as “a generation of twits.” He liked things that seemed to me old-fashioned, such as farms and, at least hypothetically, farming. He liked old buildings, bucolic landscapes, antiques, and realistic fiction. And it seemed as if a lot of what he liked he liked in opposition to what he didn’t like, and I learned more about the things he didn’t like, many of which were things I did like, such as exercise for its own sake, unrealistic fiction, sunny climates, and cats. He was calm on the surface, and the surface was what he let most people see; whereas I tended to share my thoughts and especially complaints. For about five
  • A timepasser is one possible means of “making some things big and other things little”—perhaps the most important phrase in our private lexicon. A timepasser can be a means of creating pleasing proportionality,
  • Things out of place or proportion give rise to a “bump,” a term that I never liked to decipher in the margin of a page, back when Todd still wrote his comments. “A bump is worse than it sounds, isn’t it?” I asked him once. “Yes,” he said. “It’s not just something you drive over. It means these things in a story aren’t connected, they aren’t meshing, they don’t meet. And so it gets you worried about the logic of the structure of the story.”
  • “Taking the spin off” can be the solution not only to a melodramatic sentence, but to a problem of tone that infects a whole manuscript. A phrase like “someone went mad for blood” has, among its other demerits, a bossy quality. Taking the spin off can be translated roughly as: Don’t try to tell the reader how to feel.
  • “You have to manage this” means something nearly opposite. Opposite also from the old saw “Show, don’t tell,” of which my college teacher Robert Fitzgerald once said, “It’s a good rule, and it’s meant to be broken.”
  • To manage something can mean slowing down an important scene to make it bigger than the things that are supposed to be little, and to do that you might try to find one moment in a story that can stand for many others. Or management might require a generalization, a summarizing statement that doesn’t seem didactic. Todd calls this sort of statement “a brilliance,” as in, “We need a brilliance here.” He has supplied me with several over the years, phrases that I transposed a little or even used verbatim. In reference to the life of inmates in a nursing home in my book Old Friends, for instance: “The problem with visitors is they have to be thanked for coming and forgiven for going away.”
  • Todd told me he didn’t think editors should make up sentences for writers. “I’ve done it, but I don’t like to do it,” he said. “But there are lines I’ve taken from you shamelessly. Ones you gave me in conversation.” “Well, conversation is one thing.” “What’s the difference?” “I don’t know,” he said. “Something mystical.”
  • It was clear from the start that he was going to be a writer. Successful or not, who can ever tell? But a writer. Over the years people have sometimes asked me what it “takes” to be a writer. When I answer this I start sounding like a basketball coach speaking of “desire.” But, really, the answer is that it seems to take an inability to imagine yourself doing anything else—because anything else is so much easier. It would have been impossible to discourage Kidder, and heartless to try.

Get the entire recommended reading list at Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday.

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