Among Murderers, literary journalism

Good Prose

‎In the last few days I have begun to send copies of my book to some of my subjects. Naturally, I wonder what they think about the book. Will they recognize themselves? Will they like or dislike “their characters” and my treatment of the subject matter? These questions made me revisit some of the (accidental) qualities of the relationships between a writer and her subjects.

I was exuberant when I stumbled across Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, about the literary friendship between author Tracy Kidder and his editor at The Atlantic, Richard Todd. The whole book reads like an important manifesto: WE THE NONFICTION WRITERS BELIEVE! Kidder and Todd’s observations resonated deeply.

Below are some of the remarkable quotes about writers and their subjects.

“To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them—by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself.”

“For immediacy of effect, writers can’t compete with popular music or action movies, cable network news or the multiplying forms of instant messaging. We think that writers shouldn’t try, that there’s no need to try. Writing remains the best route we know toward clarity of thought and feeling.”

“I sat gazing out the window, listening, I swear it, to the book I wanted to write.”

“Every story has to be discovered twice, first in the world and then in the author’s study. (…) One discovers a story the second time by constructing it. In nonfiction the materials are factual, but the construction itself is something different from fact.”

“At the extreme, of course, the author’s gradual understanding of the subject becomes the heart of the narrative.”

“We want to understand characters in a story better than we understand ourselves.”

“To place yourself on the page is in part self-discovery, in part self-creation. (…) The act feels like what a lump of clay must feel to hands of a sculptor. This is all you have to work with, but you know there’s a face in there somewhere.”

“Inevitably you will not portray others just as they would like to be portrayed.”

“Surely most readers come to a piece of writing that is called nonfiction with a reasonable expectation that the writer will at the very least attempt to be faithful to knowable facts. If you violate that expectation, you create a different set of expectations. If you abandon the goal of accuracy, you take on not just the freedoms but also the obligations of fiction. You ask that your entire story be judged by fiction standards. John McPhee once put the matter in an opposite way: ‘Things that are cheap and tawdry in fiction work beautifully in nonfiction because they are true. That’s why you should be careful not to abridge it, because it’s the fundamental power you’re dealing with. You arrange it and present it. There’s lots of artistry. But you don’t make it up.’ ”

“Subjectivity is for some people a disinhibiting drug. It absolves them of responsibility.”

“No one can capture the ever-changing interaction between a writer and a subject: observing another person and describing one’s observation, and being altered oneself in the process and thus altering the observations.”

“The subject has a story, the writer has a story, and the two don’t coincide exactly.”

“[As a writer] you are something more and less than a friend.”