Field Trip: An Evening With Ann Patchett

I discovered Ann Patchett in the same way you find a kindred spirit through a mutual friend. Of course I had heard of her, but it wasn’t until I heard her on my two favourite podcasts (Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond’s ‘Dear Sugar Radio’ and Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Magic Lessons’) that I realized that not only did I want to read her, but I could learn a lot from her also.

I read ‘Truth and Beauty’, the memoir of her friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, in almost one sitting. I found it to be a stunning slice of the writing life, how our work drives us, how people can work so differently. I was struck by how level headed Patchett seemed to be about her writing, her ability to hole up and hunker down. In contrast to Grealy, who seemed to bask in the artist’s struggle, she offered an unromantic but highly productive approach to writing.

Next was her collection of essays, ‘This is the Story of a Happy Marriage’, most notably for me the essay ‘The Getaway Car’. Tired of being asked for writing advice, she poured absolutely everything she knows about writing into one epic master class. It is good, sensible advice. It makes a good case for not being too precious. I purchased all of her novels and decided to read them in order, to watch her process, to follow her growth.

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My evening with Ann Patchett was the product of several small miracles: I was cruising the events section of the Toronto Public Library’s website, as one does, and was giddy to discover that she was coming to speak. I immediately went to reserve a ticket and the internet laughed heartily at my naivety – of course if was sold out. I gave the waitlist a shot.

A week later, hurrah!  An email saying that I had a spot. The night arrived. It was an insane week at work. I was exhausted. For the entire day I considered giving my ticket to a book club friend, but then thought, ‘No. I really need this.’ I dragged myself from one end of the city to the other on public transit in rush hour and arrived at the Toronto Reference Library with three minutes to spare. As I approached the desk I saw several muttering women stalking angrily away.

‘We’re sold out.’

‘But I have a ticket!’

‘We’re at capacity.’

Apparently book lovers are such a fickle bunch that the library always overbooks these events. We all just happened to show up. I quickly drummed up a sad monologue about having come from Scarborough, how I teach grade seven but am really a writer and really really need to see Ann Patchett because she is the oracle, but before I could deliver it the lovely man in charge looked at me and sighed.

‘You’ll have to stand.’ he said, and slipped me inside.

I got the last spot in the room.

I got the last glass of wine before the bar closed.

In a room full of people standing and sitting on the floor, I found the one empty chair.

And she was just so wonderful. Witty, wise, pragmatic, self-effacing, but seemed happy to be there. Despite the 600 people, she chatted easily about her new book ‘Commonwealth’. Her method of writing novels is to figure it all out in her head before beginning to write, which I found so interesting (I am devoted to notes on index cards). I was reminded how important it is to study the masters. Listening to any artists – but especially writers – discuss their process is such a rich resource, and such an affirmation of the thing I always forget – it is work. It takes time. You need discipline.

One very interesting topic was her total avoidance of social media. She is not on it. She doesn’t have a smartphone. She doesn’t even watch T.V. She is very aware of what is going on in the world, but, it seems, finds the noise unnecessary. As someone who has upped her social media game significantly for the purposed of this blog, I found this inspiring and unsettling, especially when she was asked about how to best get personal work published: she suggested a blog. I felt a certain comfort in the fact that I am already doing this.

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At the end of the evening everyone lined up to have their book signed (following an amusing but effective set of instructions on her part  on the required expediency of the task). I bought a copy of ‘Commonwealth’, and turned to the table where she was, and decided not to line up. Somehow I didn’t want to meet her if it was only for a moment, for my own sake. I could better honour her by spending all of Sunday, guzzling her glorious novel.

Which is exactly what I did.

 

Find an interview with Ann Patchett on ‘Commonwwealth’.here.

Find an excerpt of ‘Commonwealth’ here.

Find Author talks and other events at the Toronto Public Library here.

 

 

 

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