Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ann Patchett

She read from a new manuscript, yet unpublished. Themes of sacrifice, fertility, culture and ownership were all present in her clear and enthusiastic reading. The scene, with a giant anaconda, was dramatic and intriguing. The suspense in the plot reminded me that perhaps, even with all the discussions about gender inequality in writing awards, men and women are truly on equal terms to write about any subject in any way today. (Of course, we know the answer to the question about whether the end result achieves equal attention after the book is read.)

Patchett’s new manuscript features a student/teacher relationship. The two come together years after being in the classroom and the teacher doesn’t entirely remember the student. Patchett noted that she had a similar real-life experience and wasn’t bothered that the teacher didn’t remember her. She noted that a student “needs to know a teacher like a religious leader. You don’t need them to know you.” (Another GMU professor who blogs at shared some more insight into this discussion.)

This reminds me of my relationship with writers whose work I love. While, or sometimes after, reading, I am reminded that a good piece of literature is a teacher in itself. The clear prose, the careful consideration of ideas and the organization of each piece that creates the whole is something from which a writer can learn. A poet in one of my classes recently told me that she didn’t like to find out too much about her favorite writers because the gritty truth often let her down. While this is sometimes true, being in the presence of Ann Patchett was like listening to a favorite instructor or knowledgeable friend. I only want to know more.

When Patchett described her writing process, she noted that she writes about what she wants to know, not just what she already knows. Like with the subject of opera in Bel Canto, she immerses herself into the research and becomes a bit of an expert.

Her books, with their many characters, enter into a dialogue with her. She said that she doesn’t take notes on her characters just as she doesn’t come home from an evening out with friends and scribble down notes. Sometimes she has to ask questions of the characters to remind herself of something, just as she would with friends, and the characters themselves become friends.

Patchett is a writer who not only shares, but also asks for the reader’s contribution to the subjects she addresses. An audience member asked Patchett what her message was behind her newly published book Run. She said that ideally she would open a conversation with the readers and generally pose questions about the responsibilities every reader holds as citizens of a country and the world.

I taught Ann Patchett’s lovely novel Bel Canto to students in an introduction to literature class this semester. They seemed to enjoy it and be excited for the possibility to hear her live. (It is always disheartening to realize something I’m excited about, like a reading, is believed to be a boring assignment for students. Perhaps some of them thought that, but they didn’t let on.) I encourage you to attend any of her future events. You’ll learn something, be inspired and forget about boring assignments.

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