This is The Story of a Happy Marriage (or How a Book Club Was Born).

Way back in May, which seems like forever ago now, back when the kids were still in school, back when days were warm and nights were cool, you get my drift… Way back in May, I was in the library with my friend Rachel and our kids. I spied a book on a bookcase across the room and decided I wanted to read it. I’d heard of the book before, and I was definitely judging this book by its cover, knowing nothing about it. I decided on the spot to have a summer book club for us moms who were staring down a long summer with the kids in town. That evening, I sent out an email to a group of friends who I thought would be down with a book club and who would be in town most of the summer.  Every single lady said yes, god bless ’em. This book club would be on!

The book: This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett. I had no idea what the book was about but I trusted my instincts. It turned out to be a collection of personal essays, wonderful personal essays, maybe the best I’ve ever read. Before the book was even done, I knew I’d re-read it. I did have some pangs of worry though because these personal essays were also essays about writing, and I wasn’t sure if the ladies in my group would be down that. I guess I had thought the essays would be about marriage and parenting and being a woman, and all that good stuff. First of all, Patchett has no children so there are no essays about motherhood, though she does write about her consternation towards people who assume that she is using her dog as sublimation for a baby.

Being a childless woman of childbearing age, I am a walking target for people’s concerned analysis. No one looks at a single man with a Labrador retriever and says. “Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog? Now there’s a guy who wants to have a son.” A dog, after all, is man’s best friend, a comrade, a pal. But give a dog to a woman and people will say she is sublimating. If she says that she, in fact, doesn’t want children, they will nod understandingly and say, “You just wait.” For the record, I do not speak to my dog in baby talk, nor when calling to her do I say, “Come to Mama.” 

Her derision and annoyance come through so well, and with humor, too. I fell in love with this voice throughout the book. Each and every essay was a pleasure to read, and as someone who is still trying to master the art of the personal essay, the lessons were bountiful. In fact, if I were still teaching, these essays would form the cornerstone of a curriculum on the personal essay (along with the other master,  Philip Lopate, of course.)

Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama We must get all of them out of system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath. 

Besides the wonderful, writerly advice, Patchett’s essays give us an glimpse into worlds we don’t see, sometimes risking an unpopular viewpoint. In The Wall, Patchett writes about trying out for the Los Angeles Police Academy, in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. Patchett’s father was a captain in the LAPD, and retired before the riots. Her experience with the officers of the LAPD stands in stark contrast with the media portrayal of the force following the beating of Rodney King, his trial and the riots. In this essay, she strives to put a face on an oft-villanized group. While she does not attempt to excuse or apologize for the officers that beat Rodney King, she does want to reclaim her hard-working father’s honor and who can fault a daughter for that?

I am proud of my father. I am proud of his life’s work. For a brief time I saw how difficult it would be to be a police officer in the city of Los Angeles, how easy it would be to fail at the job, as so many have failed. My father succeeded. He served his city well. I wanted to make a note of that.  

One of my favorite essays in the collection comes at the end. The Mercies is a story about the nuns that taught Patchett as a child. First of all, as a non-Catholic, I was fascinated by this personal peek into the lives of nuns! I was also thoroughly heartwarmed by the evolving nature of the lifelong relationship between teacher and student.  I am still close with a few of my own students (a student I had as a freshman just finished grad school! Holy heck…) and I felt the story deeply, knowingly, appreciatively. And it is in this story that Patchett reveals a surprising secret that she only alludes to in an earlier essay. But I’m not going to tell you. Sorry! No spoilers here…

I also want to add that I finished this book in under a week. That’s rare these days, and I attribute that to the fact that I read it while on a week-long camping trip in Maine. With no house to clean or laundry to fold, and no social media distraction, there was not much left to do but read, which was my intention, of course, when I decided to leave my phone, dead, in the car for most of the week.  (Let’s not discuss the fact that I really should just try harder to resist the temptation, regardless of the state of my phone or the location of my various devices. Thanks.)

Out of respect for Patchett, I am not including my Amazon affiliate link here. I bought my copy at my local independent bookseller and I urge you to do the same. Full disclosure: Though I have an Amazon affiliate account, I do usually buy my books at my local bookstore. Now you know my dirty secret. 

My Writing Process




I admit, I was surprised when Tamara, my IRL friend and superblogger, asked if I wanted to participate in this blog author tour.

“She thinks I’m a writer? She thinks I’m a writer! Am I a writer?” The pressure was heavy but fleeting, thankfully. 

In her post, Tamara writes about needing permission to call herself a writer, which, of course, she doesn’t. But I do! Why am I the exception? Maybe because lately it seems like I do a lot of writing in my head and not actually on paper. There’s definitely an element of fear and a lack of self-confidence at play here. This is a post about my writing process and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to answer the questions but I did! 

1. What am I working on?
I am working on a series of interviews featuring mothers with physical disabilities. It is taking me a looooong time but I hope to get it up on my blog in the next few months. But I am also working on being a braver writer. So far, I am not doing great but I’ll get there. I know the rewards will be great when I do. 
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Do I have a genre?! I don’t know. Is journaling and blogging a genre, like being a diarist or memoirist? I guess my work differs in that I’m very sensitive to how my writing will be perceived by the people I know and love in real life, and that holds me back a lot but hopefully, some of what I’ve written has substance and meaning. I have always been a writer of few words anyway, way back to high school when Dr. Benton gave me a pass on paper page minimums because I was able to say what I needed to say without hitting the required word count. No flowery language or hyperbole for me! 
3. Why do I write what I do?
I write because I can’t hold it all in my head. Most of that stuff is in a notebook, not online. But the stuff that is online, I write and share it because I think people will like to read it, will find it useful, will be interested in it. I write what I do because sometimes thoughts are like demons. You have to let them out, so they won’t control you. 
4. How does my writing process work?
When I have an actual assignment and topic to write about, I just sit at my computer and start typing whatever I’m ready to say about it, then I stop and do research as necessary. Sometimes, I have to write on paper and not just any paper. If I’m telling a story, I use my journal. But if I’m pulling information together, or doing a writing prompt, I use a notepad. Don’t ask me why! A few months ago, I was tasked with the incredible honor of writing an obituary for a friend’s mother and I had to write it on a notepad first. Nothing else would do! 

Sometimes I just start writing in my  head, then I realize that I should probably write it down, which is why I always have a notebook and pen in my bag–sometimes, I have to write at a red light and once, I pulled over!  The other day, I left my bag in the car when I went to a friend’s house. I had to rip a page out of a spiral notebook sitting on her counter, when I thought a thought and needed to put it on paper before I lost it. So, head, then paper, then I decide if the thought is going anywhere, if it needs to be elaborated on, and if it needs to be shared. Then, I go from there. Usually, I have to be struck by inspiration. I’m a very undisciplined writer. I have no routine, no rhyme or reason to my writing sessions, which kind of describes my personality, now that I think about it… mmh. 

<------------------------->

I’m passing the baton next week to my internet friend, Thien-Kim, and my IRL friend, NJ. Thien-Kim is the author of I’m Not the Nanny and the editor of my online book club, From Left to Write.  Thien-Kim writes about raising biracial children, and while her experiences are much different from mine, I do relate in some ways, since my children are Jewricans!  NJ is a friend from Western Mass who has found an online home at A Cookie Before Dinner, and has a real knack for keeping it real and not being afraid to share the stuff we never talk about, like dirty cars and droopy drawers. Look for their posts on April 21st!