I’m a sponge for stories. I love to consume them in whatever format they’re presented to me – in a book, on film, or from the lips of a performer. But one thing I’ve never had the knack for was telling them myself.
I remember an 11th grade English class assignment that required I compose a short story. I felt completely unprepared to take on such a daunting task, and the finished product felt flimsy, shallow, and absolutely unreadable to me. Looking back, I can forgive myself that awful attempt at fiction on account of my youth and lack of guidance. I was such an avid reader back then as I am today, so I’m certain I judged myself too harshly against the shining paradigms of fiction which I poured over on a daily basis, the carefully crafted work of inspired and wizened and older professionals. It’s hard to say why this one high school homework assignment sticks with me so vividly even a decade later, especially when my inability to create plot, evoke emotion, coherently string together events, and engage an audience is not confined to the written word – I can’t tell a story (or a joke for that matter) to save my life.
But reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes it seem so damn easy. Not the writing it down part, but the creative element of storytelling. One of the longest and earliest essays featured in this collection recounts Patchett’s method of composition, how she creates an entire story in her head before ever putting pen to paper. She argues that developing a story is one of the easiest parts of fiction writing; all you need is a character or two and then you simply ask questions about those characters, put them in situations of all sorts, delve into their past experiences to understand why they are however you imagine them to be. You will find that you begin to write what you know, argues Patchett, but it won’t be long before something of interest develops too. In Patchett’s able voice, the construction of a novel sounds like a lovely pastime, a sort of daydreaming on a higher level. While I envy her ability to so effortlessly create interesting and engaging fiction, I have no desire to become a novelist. Nonetheless, it sure was interesting to read about and I almost wanted to try my hand at a short story or two. That’s the power of Ann Patchett.
Although entitled This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett’s essay collection is not solely about marriage and relationships, nor confined to her love of writing as the beginning of this review may suggest. Prior to picking this volume up, I knew little of Patchett and that is probably a large part of why I found this collection so intriguing. Essays are one of my favorite forms – I love how one writer’s nonfiction, read in close succession, can provide such a strongly nuanced feeling of a person. Every essay collection I’ve had the pleasure to read has been brimming with wisdom and left me feeling delightfully inspired and positive about life. Although there are certainly staple essay topics found in most volume across writers, each collection retains a highly specific and undefinable feeling in my mind, wrought by the particular author’s sensibility, writing style, and choice of topic.
Patchett and I don’t share nearly as much in common as I do with some other beloved essayists on my list, like Barbara Kingsolver and Jonathan Franzen. A child of divorce, a divorcee herself, a Southerner, a lover of Los Angeles, childless, and a product of a Catholic school education, Patchett’s upbringing and life experiences could not be further from my own. Voyeurism of sorts played a role in my fascination with this book. Her first marriage, doomed before it even began, is at once entirely foreign and alarmingly familiar, the type of relationship that someone could so easily fall into and, unlike Patchett, never emerge from. She explains her marriage as being ground in divorce in an essay that she wisely placed at the end as it trumped all the other relationship woes and advice previously disseminated. The close friendship Ann develops in later life with the nun who taught her to read and write in primary school is touchingly funny and still unfathomable to me, the child of vaguely Catholic parents who only shared horror stories about nuns during their Catholic school days. I find myself thankful for her account of training for the Los Angeles Police Academy, one of those experiences I’d much rather read about than try my own hand at. And of course, I was complete won over (and nearly brought to tears) with meditations on Patchett’s beloved dog Rose and her deeply adored maternal grandmother, a woman Ann cared for in the later years of her life.
Her friendship with Lucy Grealy is the subject of a controversial but touching convocation address at Clemson, leading into Patchett’s arguments for the right to read. Though she later goes on to admonish herself for the naivete of her speech, Patchett’s words rung so true to me: “A college education is about expansion. It’s about seeing many different viewpoints, hearing many different voices. You will find that the more you learn, the more complicated many things get, because you will have the intelligence to recognize many aspects of a single idea.” Maybe I was particularly drawn to this bit of wisdom because it sums up my hunger for essays, especially the type that Patchett composed and compiled in this book. I find myself eager to read anything of this form as a means to learn from people similar to and different from myself. The essay has a fairly express purpose of making a point, not veiling themes in metaphor and symbolism as a more artful novel would, but explicitly structuring anecdotes and arguments in thoughtful ways to evoke an idea.
I’m not sure what I can say to adequately prepare readers for this collection without denying them the pleasure of discovering and evaluating Patchett’s wisdom on their own. As Ann suggests, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage makes my world delightfully more complicated. Her engaging essay collection marks one more contribution to the multitude of ideas, big and small, planted in my head by a wide range of thinkers and writers. This book is a brilliant example of why I love to read.