Kidder & Todd’s Good Prose

A Narratively Short where the art of non-fiction storytelling is discussed and the future of journalism is debated.

Kidder & Todd’s Good Prose

In January, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder and his longtime editor, Richard Todd, author of The Thing Itself and the former executive editor of the Atlantic Monthly, put out an excellent book about non-fiction writing called Good Prose. Given that narrative non-fiction is what we do at Narratively, I decided to ring the two vets up. We ended up speaking at length about a variety of topics—cultivating editorial relationships, our age of snippets and bits, Joseph Mitchell’s sleight of hand, and finding honesty in one’s work—to kick off Narratively Shorts’ first ever Shop Talk.

Narratively: Good Prose is a book about the art of writing, as well as collaboration. What’s the key to a good writer/editor relationship? Is there an elevator pitch? 

Richard Todd: (Laughing) Avoid elevator pitches at all costs, if you can. Get the guy trapped between floors.

Is there a key? Or is it more a question of getting to know a person, more of a process?

Tracy Kidder: Clearly the latter. It’s bound to be a little complicated, and there’s no real prescription for it. There are a few general rules I think.

Sure.

TK: One of the points we’re at pains to make is that you have to learn how to be edited. I know it doesn’t sound as obvious as, “You have to learn how to edit,” but you really do. And that begins with the realization that you’re not doing people a favor when you ask them to read what you’ve written. Another would be: if you’re a writer and you need another set of eyes, as most writers do, then then you better choose those eyes carefully. You really have to be sure that you have someone who can interest himself in your creations and try to work in your best interest. So figure out if you can trust that person, and if you can, trust them. And then begin to learn, as Todd once put it to me, to cultivate a little objectivity toward what you’ve written so you don’t get personally offended every time an editor gives you good advice about getting rid of, or fixing, something.

RT: Or bad advice. I mean, it’s a balancing act after all. I think you have to learn how to hear criticism, but you also have to learn how to discriminate…

TK: Todd says that because he hasn’t had really good editors, except for me. He wants to leave himself room to be one of those cranky authors who refuses to admit that he’s written bad… (begins to break into laughter)

Uh oh. 

RT: Let’s let that slide by.

How long did it take for you two to reach an understanding of each other?

TK: Oh I don’t know, I’m not sure we ever did. (Laughs.) The problem is, you can’t just order up an editor/writer relationship.

RT: You take it as it comes, one damn sentence at a time, and if it starts to work, then it starts to work. But what I was about to say is that sometimes editors do give you bad advice, but usually it’s because they’re trying to fix a real problem. That is, they come up with the wrong solution, but the fact that they’re bothered by something is usually significant. You have to be able to hear all, but listen to what is really relevant. It’s a two-way thing. You can’t reject and you can’t submit. It’s a very active business.

TK: I’m not quiet sure that’s true for me. I have to absolutely trust the editor. Trying to decide, “Oh, I think he’s wrong here. Oh, I think he’s right there.” Not so sure about that. Particularly for a young writer, I would always err on the side of saying, “He’s got a point here.”

Can we talk about the editor’s role?

RT: One of the things you have to learn as an editor is to work from the great to the small. Some editors will just pounce on their favorite comma-fall and fix it the whole way through the manuscript without stepping back and saying, “What’s the guy trying to do here?”

TK: That’s really important, and it goes to the question of this cooperative thing we do called rewriting. We basically say in the book that there are two kinds. One is tinkering, The Small, which is important. It can sometimes lead you to clues about how to do The Big. But it’s The Big that really matters—that’s the one that’s hardest for people to undertake and that makes the biggest difference between a good piece of writing and a bad one.

RT: Every now and then there’s a sentence or a word that goes wrong in a way that is representative of a larger problem. But it’s a question of getting mired in little details. You’ve got to try to keep your eye on the whole. People will sometimes say to me, “Oh I can’t wait till you mark this up,” and my heart goes a little cold, because, you know, we’ll see if it’s ready to be marked up.

How would you assess the current state of narrative nonfiction writing?

RT: I don’t know. On the one hand, it’s very nice to see that the form is more recognized, particularly academically. People talk about non-fiction having a place in MFA programs, where it didn’t before. On the other hand, the markets for it are confusing, if not shrinking. Magazines are smaller and fewer. It’s difficult.

TK: It is great to see it absorbed in the academy, but one of the great things about it when I was first starting out was that it wasfree of the academy. There was a certain wildness to it and you were sort of making it up as you go. Not making up the facts, in my case…

RT: But making up the rules.

TK: And finding what you thought were new ways to do it. Whatever we call it, narrative non-fiction or factual narratives, it’s very old. Very, very old. It’s at least as old as Thucydides to my knowledge, but I’m sure it’s even older.

There was a line in the book about creating “a lie composed of facts,” which got me thinking. We live in an age of snippets and bits. We’re more observed now than ever; we record and capture the details of our daily lives now more than ever, through emails and text messages and the like. Do you think that this captures the sinew of life, or distorts it?

TK: Well a lot of it is ephemera. With writing any kind of history or account of a contemporary event, it’s about selection. It’s figuring out what was the heart of the matter. Most of what you mentioned is fluid. It’s necessary for making the pudding of life, but not really what you want. It’s often the case with overheard cell phone conversations. The ones that I really loath happen at the airport: “I’m here in the lobby, I’m just going down the stairs now, I’m going to be coming up the stairs again soon, and I think I’ll buy a magazine.” Blah! Tedious. Nonsense. I don’t know if it’s ever been any different, but…

RT: We are aswim in facts—in recorded facts—in a way that is interesting, although the facts themselves may not be interesting. The fact of the facts is interesting.

You write in the book about being honest with yourself when writing. What is the best way to reach a place of honesty in one’s writing? Is there a process?

RT: I think it’s listening to yourself, and listening for false notes. You sort of know when you’re making it up. You know when you know that you don’t know. You should watch out when you find yourself using other peoples’ understanding of things, or other peoples’s language. But as for a process, God knows. Tracy, you must know the answer to this.

TK: When you get yourself immersed in the materials of what you’re trying to write, that’s the process. Just getting more and more immersed. All you’re really trying to do is pull the thing back into the light. You’re not trying to show off, you’re not trying to supply someone else’s nifty notions. You’re just trying to get at the thing itself. I can remember one time in particular when I had something wrong, I had remembered it wrongly. Fortunately I had my notes. There’s was something that bothered me about it, it was just a little too good to be true. And when I wrote it again it was much better. I have often believed—and this may sound like magical thinking—that if you think to yourself, “There’s a feeling that I want this to have,” that somehow or other that gets onto the page. I wonder how a person could think he was writing a factual narrative when he was making composite characters and messing around in overt ways with time. People say that Joseph Mitchell did it, and he did pretty well, but…

What did Joseph Mitchell do?

TK: Oh, apparently he made up all kinds of stuff.

RT: The theory is that the truth does reside in the facts, even if the facts can be distorted into lies. But if you stick to the facts you’re going to find something.

TK: Or at least you have a better chance doing that than inventing it. I mean, if you want to invent it, go write fiction. Maybe larger truths are lying there, but I think that it’s a cheating of the reader to call something non-fiction and then make stuff up.

It also defeats the point of doing non-fiction.

TK: That’s what I think. It just becomes absurd. I think the real challenge of the art is finding what is true and exciting, and entertaining, and deeply interesting in the facts themselves—in the hand that you have been dealt.