Last night I had the distinct privilege of seeing Ann Patchett speak at George Mason University’s Fall for the Book Festival. She was awarded the Fairfax Prize for her work, and then she read from her novel that comes out in June. (Let’s just say that it involves doctors, eternal fertility, and a really large anaconda). The reading was great, but I most enjoyed hearing her speak and answer questions.

But perhaps the most inspiring things I heard from her talk were things her teachers Allan Garganus and Grace Paley taught her. Garganus taught her that writing is work. “Art comes later,” she said. What we we do when we sit at the page is our work. Paley taught her about the unity of a writer’s voice, that no matter what a writer is doing she is that voice that comes to the page. (Those synopsis really sell the ideas, but you get the gist, I hope.) I was absolutely blown away by hearing those ideas, not because they are new but because they are what I need to hear to keep me writing. I need to just do the work and write from myself. Pretty freeing for me these days.

Patchett also talked about how she writes her books for herself. She writes the book that she wants to read (to echo Toni Morrison a bit, I think). I really like that idea. Sometimes I get very caught up in the idea that something will sell, and when I get that place in my head, I can’t get out of it. I like being able to write what I want to read.

But perhaps the most striking thing she said came in response to a question someone asked about her memoir Truth and Beauty. After that book came out, Lucy Grealy’s sister wrote a fairly scathing attack on Patchett saying that she was using Grealy’s death for her own gain. The questioner wanted to know Patchett’s response to the article. Patchett said, “I didn’t read it. I believe strongly in protecting myself. I didn’t read it.” Wow. I’m not sure I would have been able to keep myself from reading it, no matter how much it hurt me. But I think I’ll try to learn from Patchett in this, too. Sometimes self-protection is a wise, wise thing.

My students loved her presentation and several of them waited in the long line to have her sign their books. It was really a great night, and I loved to see my students participating in it.

So here’s a plug – if you can see Ann Patchett, do. It’s well worth it.

Ann Patchett

For my review of Truth and Beauty, see this entry.