In reading Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, I keep thinking that the thing about books on writing is that they can provide a glimpse into the mind of an author, but only of that author. Even though writing books may tackle all the same topics: character, point of view, setting, each writer has their unique approach, however slightly. Of course there are some fundamentals, like spelling and grammar that don’t change often, but just because I know all the chords and scale for G minor key doesn’t mean I know how to write music using it. But ultimatley, what works for you as a writer will likely not work for me. And that's ok.
So why do I keep going to back to books on writing? Well, for one, I’m interested in the creative process. I’m interested in how authors break down the stories they tell. Or how to build the stories they’ve discovered. And maybe I'll pick up on something I never consider. But deep down, I think that if I read enough books on writing that somehow, someway, that novel inside me will finally come out. But alas, it is a fool’s dream. If I want to write that book, then I all I need to do is write that book. No amount of reading about how to do it will replace the act of creation itself.
Nonetheless I simply enjoy the shoptalk of writers, keep returning such books, and Good Prose is not a bad place to spend time with. Primarily focused on non-fiction writing, it covers the basics like every other writing book, along with a bit of career memoir, with a warm conversational style that you just can’t help but want to put the book down and start writing yourself. It gave me a bit to think about, especially about the process of being edited, along with some excellent analysis of classic non-fiction works that I wasn’t familiar with, such as John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, which fall in current wheelhouse.
The title of the book is intriguing. One of the thoughts I had was, why only “good” prose and not “great”? While reading along, I found that the “good” in the book title seems to me less about a quality of scale, but more about creating prose that possess a moral good, to put it crudely. And by that I mean that non-fiction writing should be about truth and facts obviously, but not about spin, melodrama, or manipulation. Good prose should be enlightening and entertaining and not commercial or political pandering. This really struck me towards the end of book when the authors talk about the tension between art and commerce and eventually bring David Foster Wallace into the conversation, quoting him,
…the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose: the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love, instead of the part that just wants to be loved. (135)
In framing writing within this dichotomy, it has given me a lot to think about my own intentions and the reasons why I write. I don’t think I have had a desire to write out a want to be loved. But as an occassional misanthrope, the converse never occurred to me in this particular way: writing as an act of love, a gift freely given, with no expectation of being loved back. How does a writer do that? It’s a good question.