Flashback: How a Writer, With Some Help, Learned to Do Great Work

Screen shot 2014-05-10 at 1.19.23 PMBy Jack Limpert

A post from a year ago about what a writer can learn from being edited.

The writer Tracy Kidder and the editor Richard Todd met 40 years ago at The Atlantic Monthly, and this year they collaborated on a book: Good Prose – The Art of Nonfiction, described as “Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing.” When they met, Todd was 32 and had been in Boston at The Atlantic Monthly for four years; Kidder was 27 and trying to write a story for the magazine about a mass murder in California. The editing-writing partnership has endured, with Kidder going from magazine articles to books—his first, with Todd as his editor, was The Soul of a New Machine, which in 1982 won the Pulitzer Prize. You come away from Good Prose feeling that you’d enjoy having lunch with either of them.

In the introduction, they say this: “Good Prose in mainly a practical book, the product of years of experiment in three types of prose: writing about the world, writing  about ideas, and writing about the self. To put this another way, this book is a product of our attempt to write and to edit narratives, essays, and memoirs. We presume to offer advice, even the occasional rule, remembering that our pronouncements are things we didn’t always know but learned by attempting to solve problems in prose.”

They set the stage for journalism in the old days: “It was an era that in memory seems closer to The Atlantic’s distant past than to our present, an era of typewriters and secretaries—mostly young, wry women with first-class educations trying to find their way into publishing careers. There were a few older women, two of them editors; one wore a hat at her desk.”

My favorite chapter, “Being Edited and Editing,”  has Kidder writing 23 pages about what he learned from being edited by Todd, and Todd then writing 15 pages about what he learned from working with Kidder.

Here’s Kidder talking about writer’s block: “For a time, I insisted that the first sentence be perfect before going on, and therefore spent whole days and nights getting nowhere. This sort of thing happened often enough to make me fear it. So I abandoned care entirely when writing rough drafts. Instead, I wrote fast. I would spend a day or two in reverie over my material, then scratch out  a sort of plan, not even an outline but just a list of events, and then churn out pages as quickly as I could. Writing as fast as possible would prevent remorse for having written badly. I would take every path that looked interesting, and keep myself from going back and reading what I’d written, let alone trying to fix it.”

About rewriting: “I learned to like rewriting, maybe too much, but really it is the writer’s special privilege. We rarely get the kind of chance in life that rewriting offers, to revise our pasts, to take back what we’ve said and say it better before others can hear it.”

He has some fun with Fitzgerald: “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. Fitzgerald knew that there are at least two kinds of rewriting. The first is trying to fix what you’ve already written, but doing that can keep you from facing up to the second kind, from figuring out the essential thing you’re trying to do and looking for better ways to tell your story. If Fitzgerald had been advising a young writer and not himself, he might have said, ‘Rewrite from principle,’ or ‘Don’t just push the same old stuff around. Throw it away and start over.’”

And about his relationship with Todd 40 years ago when he was trying to write his first piece for The Atlantic Monthly and Todd for many months kept helping him: “I never dared to ask Todd why he put up with it, but some years later, I raised the question with his wife, Susan, and she said, ‘He’s willing to work as hard as the writer is.’”
It’s a thoughtful, helpful book with some wonderful insights about being a writer. Coming up: Wisdom from Todd about editing.

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