Ann Patchett: The Getaway Car (2011) A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life

In one of her wonderful Friday Five Series Jacquelin Cangro mentioned Ann Patchett’s essay The Getaway Car that is only available in e-book format. How lucky I just got a kindle for Christmas and could put it into use for the first time. I’m really grateful to Jacquelin for mentioning this essay as it may very well be one of the most wonderful pieces on writing that I have read in a long time. On some 50 pages Ann Patchett combines memoir with some advice that is useful to anyone who has ever thought of writing or who was interested in the process of writing. All the fans of Ann Patchett will love this little book as well, I’m sure. I haven’t read anything by Ann Patchett so far but I certainly will sooner or later.

There were a few elements in this book that I would like to mention, still, the take home message from this post should be – go and read it for yourself. It’s brilliant.

Ann Patchett writes about those wonderful pictures we have in our mind and as soon as we start to write them down, they start to look pale. Like pierced butterflies in display cases. What we need in order to over come the disappointment of not being able to capture our own images is forgiveness.

I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.

She writes about inspiration and that one of the most important works for her was Thomas Mann’s ZauberbergThe Magic Mountain that she read when she was very young.

I think what influences in literature comes less from what we love and more from what we happen to pick up in a moment when we are especially open.

She loved it so much that all of her own novels reproduce that basic plot of

a group of strangers being thrown together by circumstances and form a society in confinement.

She also writes about writing chronologically, about chapters and pacing and writer’s block which doesn’t exist, according to her. She does write about MFA’s and whether it is possible to learn creative writing. This is especially interesting for Europeans who, I think, frown when they hear someone has taken courses in creative writing or even acquired a MFA.

Something I found valuable as well is her take on research.

As much as I love doing research, I also know that it provides a spectacular place to hide. It’s easy to convince myself that I can’t start to write my book until I’ve read ten other books, or gone to ten other places and the next thing I know a year has gone by.

Here lies the answer to why she thinks there is no such thing as writer’s block but procrastination.

It’s a short essay but it’s very well written and contains a world of valuable suggestions and stories of her own life.

37 thoughts on “Ann Patchett: The Getaway Car (2011) A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life

    • I see it as and addition, really, for free classics, books that are not available otherwise and maybe something I need This instant. But it’s not a replacement. It’s fun but I need to be able to write in a book, handwriting that is and I miss the covers and … but it’s great for short pieces and classics and the one or the other book I want to read but I will not re-read. I don’t think I’d like it for non-fiction, short stories or anything more literary.

      • The “search” function can come in handy at times. Sometimes I can remember a partial quote of a classic but not the whole thing or just where it is in an 800 page book, but the search function will take me to the quote in a couple of seconds. Like you though the Kindle is not a replacement,

        • I didn’t either but then I thought I was just being stubben and wanted to see for myself. While I will do most of my reading in books, there are advantages, like finding something that doesn’t exist in paper. And who knows, maybe my first published book will be an e-book?

  1. Oh I really love what she says about forgiveness. That certainly strikes a chord with me. I’d love to read this, but no kindle alas (and no intention of getting one). So that makes me even more glad that you wrote about this essay and gave us a taste of it.

    • I found this part about forgiveness so true, I think Jacquelin also underlined it. We are so unkind to ourselves and frankly, isn’t it disappointing when it looks so good in our mind and on paper it is so pale in comparison?
      I think each and every one of her recommendations make sense. The one about research too and there were more.
      I was so not sure about the kindle but now I see it has it’s advantages after all.

    • You are welcome, Amy. I found it wonderful and will read it again soon. It’s better than many long books I’ve read or “how-to manuals”. There are a dfew details one one or two of her books and it is interesting to read how she wrote them and that she returns to the same basic plot.

  2. I’ll second Guy: welcome to the kindle.
    Ok, there aren’t any covers. (well, there are, but you don’t see them as the book opens at the first page) However, that might be a bliss for writers burdened by ugly book covers that could be a put off for readers. And there are a lot of ugly covers too.

    The find function is handy and so are the highlight one and the clipping file: no need to type quotes anymore!

    • But what about book spying? I love to see what others read in bus and train…
      But there certainly are ugly covers.
      In any case reading on the kindle will always be the exception but it’s nice for the classics, you can read it for free and then always buy it if you really love it.

        • Hmm book hiding… Hardly feel like doing that. I’m not displaying the choices but don’t mind others reading it. I discovered Keri Hulme through book spying. Will write a post on it one of these days. 🙂

              • Non readers aren’t morons, they are interested in other things.
                I don’t drink and I don’t dance, that draws enough of attention; no need to bring Proust or books in English into the mix. Plus jokes are also a way to hide embarrassment.

  3. This sounds good. I love her idea about forgiveness. I read her book Run last year and thought it was okay. I can really see the influence of The Magic Mountain’s, which I haven’t read yet, concept of throwing strangers together in that novel. I haven’t purchase a kindle yet…but I am considering.

    • It is good, it was a bit like looking over her shoulder while she was writing. I haven’t read her books but found a lot of what she says about reserach interesting. She wrote about opera withouth knowing much. How to do it withouth being tied down by research and yes, how to forgive yourself when you think you have failed. That my explain why many people are harsh critics of . The compare the result to what they had in mind. I have two of her novels here and a memoir.

  4. ah how fun, you have a kindle. I’d love to have one too but they don’t sell it in Indonesia.

    what’s MFA

    this book reminds me of SK’s On Writing. It would be interesting to read about writing from a woman’s perspective as I already read about it from man’s perspective. Reading on writing was my inspiration to start writing short stories.

    • That’s too bad. Some of the books are so much cheaper as e-books.
      I’m glad I have it.
      Don’t you even have other e-readers?
      Her books is much shorter but the idea is very similar. I liked it as much as On Writing and would have loved to read more.
      MFA is a Master of Fine Arts (or creative Writing in her case).

  5. Wonderful review, Caroline! This looks like a wonderful book. Thanks for writing about it. I have heard of Ann Patchett’s novels but didn’t know that she wrote a book on writing. The only books on writing I have read are Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and Francine Prose’s ‘Reading Like a Writer’. After reading these two books, I fell in love with this genre. I loved this sentence from the book that you have quoted – “I think what influences in literature comes less from what we love and more from what we happen to pick up in a moment when we are especially open.” I wouldn’t have agreed with this sentence when I was younger, but I know now that it is true. Sometimes it is interesting to find out why our mind is especially open at certain times. The other day I was listening to a particular kind of music and reading a book and the two went together so well – like two musical instruments in a quartet – that I got more out of the book, than I would have got otherwise. It made me think on what kind of music goes with a particular kind of book – maybe I should do more research on this, or try experimenting a bit.

    Wonderful to know that you have got a Kindle. Hope you are enjoying the reading experience in it.

    • Forgot to add one more thing. I love the cover – so beautiful! Made me remember the butterfly cover of Anne Fadiman’s ‘At Large and At Small’ and her essay on butterflies.

    • Thank you Vishy, I like to read what authors write about writing. I was amazed that in only 50 pages she managed to say so much. Like you I liked Stephen King’s and Frnacine Prose’s books a lot. I’m trying to read all the books on writing that I have this year.
      I never noticed before that it has a lot to do with how open we are whether we are influenced or not but it is true. When I was travelling or on a holiday and read something I liked it stayed with me more than otherwise. I don’t to well with reading and listening to music but occasionally I listen to something that really manages to enhance he reading experience only I wouldn’t know what type of music and books. I’ll wait for the results of your research. 😉
      Oh yes, the kindle, of course I said “never” less than two months ago… Now I like it.

  6. Did you like the experience of reading on a Kindle? I don’t mind ebooks as much as I thought I would, but I still find myself nearly always reaching for a book than my Nook–which I really should as I have it loaded with lots of really good books. I like the sound of this essay/book, even though I am not a writer and don’t have any inspiration to try to write, but I like the things she says. Some of them are practical enough to put to use even in blog posts or life in general (like the forgiving yourself part and trying to just be happy with what you can do!). I read Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto, which was very good, and I have the biography/memoir of her friend who died, which I would like to read at some point. Isn’t it nice having access to these sorts of digital writings?

    • I think this essay is for more people than just for writers of novels. Some of it can be applied to blog posts, indeed. I also have that memoir. and Lucy Grealy’s as well.
      I enjoy the kindle because it’s all new and oh the many free books and things like this essay not otherwise available but I prefer reading a book for many reasons. The kindle is lacklustre. I like the sensual experinece of reading a book. Seeing the cover, smelling the print, feeling the pages, the weigth… In the kindle every book becomes the same, reduced to pure print, you could even have the same font.
      I’m going to write a post on it one of these days.

  7. I’m so glad that you found The Getaway Car worthwhile. There are so many takeaways I found myself highlighting quite a bit. One of the most valuable pieces for me was about forgiveness. She was able to give words to what I’d felt for a long time about having the perfect novel in my head but being unable to get it to the page in the same way. You simply have to do the best you can and forgive yourself the rest.

    You’d mentioned that many Europeans don’t find value in MFAs. I’m interested to hear more about that because there is a lot of discussion here in NYC, where I live, about that very thing. There was a long article in Salon titled MFA vs. NYC which discussed the pros and cons of the rigors of a master’s program versus writing from life experience.

    On an unrelated note, I know that you’ve been reading war literature lately and thought you’d find this list of WWI novels interesting. Maybe there are a few you haven’t read yet.

    • Thanks a lot for the link.
      I was so glad I read Ann Patchett. Amazing that a short book can contain such a lot of valuable information.
      When you admit to take courses in creative writing you will end up being ridiculed in Europe, maybe less in the UK.
      I saw a discussion thread on a blog once and it was very interesting, I haven’t bookmarked it and wil try to find it again.
      The belief is that all books will end up looking the same and that you will not get “real art” anymore.
      My 18 year old self would have said exactly the same thing but that pure prejudice. Painters train as well and the time when there was a controversy between those who went to an academy and those who didn’t seems long gone. I think people do not know what happens in creative writing courses and how many drop out after just a few hours.

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