Literary legends talk Good Prose

by Eric Twardzik / Beacon Staff • February 15, 2012

A black curtain covered the silver screen at the Bright Family Screening Room. The audience filling the cinema seats didn’t come for a movie, but for the three tall men who sat in front of the screen, arranged in a mix of turtlenecks and tweed. The literary threads were fitting; Two of the men form the nonfiction world’s dream team, and the third was a former student who had waited 28 years to host their conversation on writing, editing, and what makes literary relationships tick.

“I’ve been planning this event since 1984,” said Douglas Whynott, an associate professor in the writing, literature, and publishing department.

Whynott feels connected to the men he introduced: award winning writer Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, his editor of over 30 years. In 1984, Whynott had just read Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine, a Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction narrative about the rising computer industry. In the same year he was enrolled in a class with Todd at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in which Kidder was a guest speaker.

The writer, editor, and former student were reunited to discuss the art of nonfiction and Good Prose, Kidder and Todd’s upcoming book about writer-editor relationships based on their decades of experience. Kidder and Todd’s relationship has spanned the course of thirty years and nine books, providing a rich supply of literary wisdom and wit. Their familiarity was apparent during the panel, as they completed each other’s thoughts and exchanged laughs.

Whynott led the discussion from a podium, allowing Todd and Kidder to explore topics like memoir, and nonfiction ethics.

Kidder confessed his past reservations on the genre of memoir.

“I’d say things like, I think people ought to have a license in order to write a memoir,” he said, “one of the prerequisites being that you had to have done something in your life.”

Kidder, who has written about his Vietnam war experience in My Detachment admitted, “I made a special exception for myself and wrote a memoir.”

While Kidder acknowledged memoir as a “noble form”, he and Todd both warned potential memoirists of the market’s glut. They encouraged writers to explore other nonfiction topics.

Kidder, who currently teaches at Goucher College’s MFA program, said, “That’s just what students wanted to do—write about their lives—and I wanted to say go out into the world and find out about somebody else’s life.”

Todd and Kidder discussed how to faithfully depict real people as characters in nonfiction. Kidder used Deo, a Burundi war refugee whose story was told in 2009’s Strength in What Remains, as an example. Kidder wrote the first half of the book from the perspective of Deo, accomplished by exhaustive research of Deo and his experience. As the book was written years after Deo’s odyssey, Todd acknowledged that it could not be a pure retelling of the events, but asserted that nonfiction is never a record of exact memory. Todd said that it was something new the writer constructs from memories, which he likened to a carpenter working with wood.

“It’s like a beautiful desk that a carpenter’s built, that’s very different from the wood.” Todd said.

By choosing to write the lives of real people rather than imaginary characters, nonfiction writers must consider the consequences of their work.

“Unlike a character in a novel, the character in nonfiction has a life that goes on after the book, and even during the book, and you have to find a way to honor that,” said Todd. “That’s the essential moral dilemma, I think, of writing nonfiction.”

The nonfiction writer must find an interesting subject, conduct painstaking research, and navigate ethical issues. But all that work won’t produce a good read unless there is real passion behind the pen.

“It takes a long time to write a book,” said Todd, “and if you get bored with it, everybody knows.”