Monday, May 13, 2013

In the Margin "Monthly Book Review" by Phil Baker

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd weave amusing stories of the writing life with technical advice into “Good Prose, The Art of Nonfiction”. The book is subtitled “stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing” and is precisely that, a collection of engaging anecdotes interspersed with technical and artistic instruction. It is collaboratively written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Kidder and his long-time editor Todd. The book of 195 pages is available at the Windham Public Library.

The book is designed as a text exposing how critical decisions are made, such as point of view and tense in which a nonfiction story will be presented. Pace and texture, the question of chronology, linear or otherwise are judgments that the author and editor must make to create a readable and informative piece. Chapter headings such as “Beginnings”, “Narratives” and “The Problem of Style” gained my attention as a writer trying to exercise the craft.

Technique and artistic method aside, the personalities of the two authors shine through making the book far more than a dry text. In italicized back of the hand asides they each testify to how they saw the other performing his job, making the reader a privileged confidant. And no holds are barred. For example, when asked by the writer what was wrong with his article the editor replied: “Well, first of all, the first sentence.” The result is a text that reads more like a memoir. I’m not a fan of the modern memoir. I find it’s often a book written by someone whose tweets strain their writing, or a ghost-written piece about someone who strains my attention. However the chronicling of Kidder’s success as a writer, Todd’s as an editor and their interdependence is compelling reading.

The authors present samples of the work of Jonathan Harr (A Civil Action), John Mcphee (Encounters with the Archdruid and A Sense of Where You Are) and Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild) among others. I selected this book with the hope of gaining an understanding of the writing process. I got that and more including a reading list and good entertainment.

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