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Tracy Kidder

March 31, 2012

The celebrated creative non-fiction writer Tracy Kidder appeared last night at the Fayetteville Public Library and gave an hour-long talk on the writer-editor relationship.

He was warmed up by an African drumming and dancing corps, which pounded and shook so mightily it was a hard act to follow. How could Kidder expect the toe-tapping to continue, the 3 year old blonde girl in the front row to continue dancing  to his discourse?

07_art1_book_kidder.jpgNo, we held our ground, calmly, appreciatively, planted in our hard chairs, and heard the author talk about a special privileged relation he has had, for over 40 years, with his editor, a laconic and self-effacing man named Richard Todd.

What struck me especially as Kidder went on describing their collaboration over the years was the author’s  need to find in his editor, “another set of eyes,” the reassurance he might have lacked, wholly, without him. Yes, Kidder was fortunate to find his Todd, initially in writing an early article for the Atlantic, for without him he might have plummeted and come plump down to earth the way some of his collegues at the Iowa writers’ workship did.

Who else would listen to you, a budding writer (who feared nipping in the bud), when you called early and late with the latest information on the text you were writing? Who else would be such a sounding board, such a trusted confidant? True, Todd didn’t necessarily want to know all the details that Kidder knew and was sometimes bedeviled by (for example, about the sewage system of New York City), and yet he was there, on the other end of the phone or across the desk, available, assuring.

When I suggested at the end of the talk that this writer-editor relationship reminded me of the patient-psychiatrist pairing, Kidder laughed and half  assented. “Perhaps,” he said.

An entertaining and privileged accounting, then, this talk, of the writer and his confessor, or shrink, if not muse. No, the writer has to find his inspiration where he will, deep in himself and his most personal concerns, as for example Kidder did with The Soul of a New Machine and House. And his particular genius may be revealed in the latter kind of text especially, where he takes a common subject, the building of a house, and makes it uncommon, even extraordinary, where he lights up the everyday and reveals the sublime in the basic structure (planning, building a house).

As usual, the audience sent out a hail of questions, some probing, some naive. Of the latter, one woman wanted to know how Kidder kept up the discipline of writing. A silly question perhaps, and naive. How can a writer write without the habit of writing, the daily need? But, on the other hand, how can a writer keep up without the kind of editorial and human encouragement that Todd provided during the long haul writing of so many works?

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From → language, reassurance

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