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Patchett essays focus on writer's craft

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The title of American novelist Ann Patchett's latest book is taken from one of the 22 non-fiction essays collected here -- which tells the story of the writer's happy marriage to her second husband.

But what this collection really lays bare is the truth about a different kind of marriage: the deep, demanding and intimate relationship between a writer and her craft.

These revealing and entertaining essays not only showcase Patchett's talent, but also offer a peek into the writer's life and passions.

Most members of the Patchett fan club joined because of her 2001 Pen/Faulkner Award winning novel, Bel Canto. These fans may not know that before her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, was published in 1992, Patchett paid her rent by writing for American publications as diverse as Seventeen and The New York Times Magazine.

Those years of journalism honed a workhorse mentality Patchett includes in her list of credits as to her success as a writer.

She finds non-fiction writing easy compared to the limitlessness of fiction, she says, because it is like a "soprano's boned corset, the built-in restrictions providing both support and something to push against."

Most of the personal essays in this collection were written after the commercial and critical success of Bel Canto gave Patchett, who also operates a small bookstore in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn., the financial freedom to choose her writing assignments.

In The Getaway Car, aspiring writers will find the usual kinds of advice doled out to writers: "ideas are everywhere," "plots must be complicated," and most important, "practise."

But what elevates Patchett's advice from writer's workshop material to illustration of the art of the craft is Patchett's sublime prose.

The description of her writing process is fascinating and, be warned, aspiring writers, painful. Patchett describes the agonizing metamorphosis of the novel of her imagination -- "a thing of indescribable beauty" -- to what ultimately ends up on the page, where she says she "kills it."

"It's the only way I can get something that is three-dimensional onto the flat page."

It is because of this torturous process that Patchett believes so few people actually write: "Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words."

Among Patchett's considerable gifts is her ability to find lessons in even the grimmest of situations, and to then turn these into beautiful, truthful prose and non-fiction.

In How to Read a Christmas Story, Patchett recounts a bittersweet memory of her family's complicated post-divorce holiday arrangements.

Her little girl confusion and sadness is palpable, but what stands out is the tender description of her father reading to her, over the phone, the best Christmas story ever.

In The Sacrament of Divorce, Patchett does not shy away from holding herself accountable for the misery she caused herself and her first husband. But here again she finds a silver lining, and the lesson she takes forward becomes the beautiful love-letter-like essay about her second husband in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

Just as there is variety and surprise in every good marriage, so is there in this collection. With topics ranging from an impassioned address to a college freshman class on "the right to read" to a hilarious account of a Winnebago road trip -- "People who don't like them have never been in one" -- this book is not to be missed, aspiring writer or not.

Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 A1

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