Ann Patchett & Patricia Lockwood
No witty subtitle this week, only good books in conversation with each other
Someone I’ve been working with recently read Ann Patchett's recent collection of essays These Precious Days for a book club and recommended it, and it was fortuitously available to borrow from Libby. Reading it on the subway home from work was one of those rare pleasurable book kismet experiences in which I didn’t notice the hourlong commute as I read it on my phone. Patchett is one of those writers that I feel certain I’ve encountered at some point—surely I’ve read Bel Canto, even though I have absolutely no memory of it—but she isn’t an author I seek out regularly. Before reading this essay collection my strongest feelings about Patchett centered around her excellent bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books.
The subjects covered in the essays in These Precious Days cover a wide range of topics—family, death, grief, stuff, travel, the vagaries of MFA programs, the writing life, and plane ownership. I found myself thinking about the book a lot over the week that followed (I know I missed last week - sorry!) and thinking about it in concert with another book heavily influenced by family, grief, and Catholicism: Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking about This.
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The essays in These Precious Days are heavily informed by a Catholic faith that Patchett still appreciates, even if she doesn’t practice it. (I don’t know if she does or not—that she is friends with a non-zero number of nuns seems to suggest that she’s still on friendly terms with the religion.) But Patchett’s and Lockwood’s familial experiences of religion and faith led them to what feels like to me very different conclusions about the subject. Where Patricia Lockwoods’ upbringing left her with no illusions about the shortcomings of organized religion, Patchett seems to have carried forward from her early years a sense that faith enacted in the world is an engine for good. Both, however, grew up with the absolute certainty that their life would be dedicated to writing and stories.
Of course, their upbringings could not have been more different. In “Three Fathers,” Patchett explores with tender nuance the experience she had with her mother’s three husbands—her father, her first stepfather, and her second stepfather. Her father didn’t understand her desire to be a writer. “Maybe all he could do was operate within the world he knew: Catholicism, the navy, the police department. Captains gave orders and sailors went to sea. Who was I but a swabbie? He'd taken orders and I would take orders. No one exists on paper and pens, alone in a room without anyone to tell them when to get up and what to eat and where to go and when to sleep.” His love for her was confused and worried—deep into her writing life he was still suggesting she take a job as a waiter on a cruise ship. Where Patchett found in her father’s lack of support a necessary, bracing element to her perseverance—“It turns out that having a hard wall to hit your tennis balls against is what gives them bounce”—Lockwood’s home was unsupportive in a different way, as she writes in her memoir Priestdaddy: “The seminarian calls women the ‘tabernacle of life.’ The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.” She never went to college because her father—again, a Catholic priest—spent all their money on musical instruments for himself.
Lockwood is lyrical in her descriptions in a more expansive way than Patchett. Where Patchett is spare Lockwood lets loose. This is Lockwood’s description of the music her father played at deafening volume in the converted Catholic school in which they lived: “The money could have been a college degree for one of us, it could have been the down payment on a retirement house, it could have been that feeling of green security that none of us have ever had—but instead it was this music, tumbling like a loose class through the school, sounding like an entire education, sounding like the reason why.” Patchett describes her father’s lack of certainty about her future in much less sweeping terms: “My father read my stories, and then my books in manuscript. He helped me with research. He gave me notes. He was proud of me and good to me, he just didn’t think this thing I was doing was actually a job.”
Lockwood and Patchett both had singular visions for their own lives. Both knew from an early age that they wanted to be writers, and both set about it with a singular focus. Where Patchett’s path took her through college and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Lockwood didn’t ever get a degree. Both, however, knew exactly what they wanted to be doing. In one of my favorite essays from These Precious Days, Patchett talks about how one of the formative figures of her childhood that taught her to be a writer was Snoopy from the Peanuts comics: "Snoopy didn't just write his novels, he tried to get them published. In those dark days before electronic submissions, he taught me what it would mean to stand in front of a mailbox, waiting to hear from an editor. He taught me—I cannot emphasize this enough—that I would fail." Patchett pieced together a living and, predictably, her own father’s approval came when she got very rich from the sales of her fourth novel, Bel Canto. Lockwood had a similar view on prosperity (happily shared with her husband:) “My flaming certainty that I was born to write books dovetailed so neatly with Jason’s belief that he was destined to be a sort of Leonard Woolf figure, helping to usher female thinking into the world, that mostly we accepted our pinched circumstances as foreordained.”
That kind of certainty has a lot to teach the writer, I think—beyond the art of it, writing is at least a little bit about stamina, sitting down as often as one can and Doing The Thing at the keyboard or notebook or whatever. Patchett even draws lessons on certainty and perseverance from Snoopy’s other hobbies of tennis and pretending to fight the Red Baron: “It wasn't as if he'd won all those tennis matches. The Sopwith Camel was regularly riddled with bullet holes He was willing to lose, even in the stories he imagined for himself. He lost, and he continued to be cool, which is to say, he was still himself in the face of both failure and success." She calls it “knowing how to love your job,” which is something a lot of us could stand to learn (I am talking of course about myself!)
Beyond lessons about the writing life from Snoopy and the married life from the essay about flying planes whose title I can’t remember, much of These Precious Days is given over to contemplation of grief—grief that’s happening now, as in the title essay and its followup, and grief that hasn’t happened yet, as in “How To Practice.” This essay is about the emotionally complicated matter of getting your house in order to prepare for your own death—who wants to leave their children/descendants/executors with all that stuff to get rid of, without knowing what of it was important? As she and her husband start the process, Patchett is dismayed by some of her possessions: “I had miscalculated the tools of adulthood when I was young, or I had miscalculated the kind of adult I would be. I had taken my cues from Edith Wharton novels and Merchant Ivory films.” She calls the journey away from the “shiny trinkets” towards thinking about “what was coming and the beauty that was here now” the process of “digging out.”
No One Is Talking About This is a similar “digging out” journey of winnowing, from what is not important to what is. In it, the unnamed narrator (a woman with a successful memoir who has become famous for a tweet, a fictionalized version of Lockwood herself) goes from being obsessed with the internet (“the portal”) to letting that obsession fall away as she contemplates the vast chasm of grief caused by her sister’s pregnancy, when the baby is diagnosed with Proteus syndrome in-utero. The narrator moves in with her sister and lives with her as the baby miraculously lives after birth and keeps living for a further miraculous six months. The narrator is incredulous and awestruck by her sister’s seemingly endless well of strength: “To watch her sister was not like watching a saint; it was like watching the clear flowing stream the saint was filled with, water that talked, laughed, carried, lifted, and never once uttered an impatient sound. “How?” she asked her sister once, and her sister stared at her like water and said, “Perfect happiness.”
In the essay “The Worthless Servant,” Patchett has a similar moment with a priest in Nashville doing heroic outreach work in vulnerable communities: "You are four days sober and I love you. You're about to get in your BMW and I love you. You are not my problem to solve but my brother to love, all of you. We want to get close [to the priest] so we can convince ourselves that he is made of some rare and superior material that hasn't been given to us, but it isn't true. Calling him a saint is just a way of letting ourselves off the hook.”
It’s interesting that Patchett and Lockwood—two women with solid certainties of their own, load-bearing beliefs in their own abilities—are so awe-struck by the compassionate capabilities of others. It’s not as though Patchett and Lockwood lack compassion. Far from it. If anything, their certainties for their own desires lead them to extraordinary acts of generosity. Lockwood’s narrator moves in with her sister and puts everything aside, even her own growing career, to help during an unimaginably difficult time. Patchett welcomes a friend into her home as she battles pancreatic cancer, unknowing that the friend would remain throughout the worst parts of lockdown in 2020. If anything, running up against early opposition from paternal figures seems to have taught them inner strength for both themselves and others.
I had to look back two years into the archive of AFN to find when I last wrote about Lockwood’s books (it was here in June 2021, if you are curious.) I ended that issue with a bit of a whimper, not really knowing how to close in the wake of talking about books that had moved me so much. These Precious Days has a lot of lessons in it—about how to be a writer, how to be married, how to be (or not to be) a parent. More than that, it has a lot to teach the reader about ideas of self, and how those ideas can either sustain your or clutter your vision.
Not to get a little sappy on main, but this is the kind of thing I love about being a book person. I found these books in different ways and through different avenues. I don’t know if Patchett and Lockwood have ever met or read the others’ work. Despite the vast differences in style, they’re in conversation with each other. Lockwood recently wrote about following Virginia Woolf’s path around the Isle of Skye as part of a new foreword for To The Lighthouse: “I had met Virginia Woolf before I ever opened her books. I knew what she looked like and what had happened to her; I knew that her books took place inside the human mind and that I had my whole life to enter them…I put off To the Lighthouse for a long time, in order to live in delicious anticipation of it. There is a pleasure to be had in putting off the classics.” These Precious Days contains a foreword Patchett wrote for a collection of stories by Eudora Welty, and it begins like this: “Not long ago, I decided it was time to reread To The Lighthouse, or I should say it was time to read it. So many years had passed since I’d first picked it up that I remembered nothing but Mrs. Ramsay and the boat.” She quotes Eudora Welty’s own introduction to To The Lighthouse: “Personal discovery is the direct and, I suspect, the appropriate route to To The Lighthouse. Yet discovery, in the reading of a great original work, does not depend on its initial newness to us. No matter how often we begin it again, it seems to expand and expand again ahead of us.”
Expand, contract, cycle, visit, revisit, discover anew. Pilgrimages to the Isle of Skye and to Jackson, Missississippi. “It was seventy-five degrees as we made our way to the cemetery after the service, something I doubt had ever happened before in Jackson in July. I doubt it will happen again. Greatness had come through once which is really all we could hope for, and the world that had been so justly represented took back the one who loved it best.”
WHAT I’M READING
Friends, I gave up on Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City and decided to reread Gideon the Ninth. I also found out that there is a new-to-me series adaptation of The Name of the Rose, one of my all-time favorite novels, so that’s next on my list. Maybe my brain is slightly broken at the moment for new fiction, as nonfiction and things I’ve read before are the only things I seem to be able to manage at the moment. I blame the weather.
THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY
It’s been a real low week for the talentless sons of former hockey heroes. Danny Briere, who last week was named as interim GM for the Philadelphia Flyers, must have had a fun time when he heard that his son Carson pushed a woman’s wheelchair down a flight of stairs at an Erie PA bar. The woman, a double amputee, was in the bathroom at the time—a bathroom she’d had to be carried down to, because it was downstairs. Carson, a 23 year old junior who was a redshirted freshman at Arizona State before getting kicked off and trying his luck unsuccessfully in Canada, has been suspended from his team “pending further investigation.” I dunno how much investigating needs to be done—the video was pretty clear to me!
I’m available to hire for independent editing services on Reedsy, around on the AFN Discord, and actively neglectful of Twitter. Come say hi!
READING: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
WATCHING: Ted Lasso
LISTENING: “Set Me Free pt. 2” by Jimin (BTS)
This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.
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