Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction
By Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd
Random House, New York, 2013
I’ve read a few books about writing over the years. They seem to come in two flavors. Some, like Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and The Right to Write by Julia Cameron, are about the act of writing. They encourage you to physically put pen to paper and write. Anything; it doesn’t matter what. Ignore that inner voice telling you your writing is crap, or trivial, or presumptuous, and just write. Do it regularly, like cardio, preferably daily. The other sort of writing books are about technique, the art of writing. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well are good examples. They teach about words, sentences, and paragraphs, character, setting and structure. Both types have their place, both are helpful.
Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction falls into the second category. Tracy Kidder, who won a Pulitzer for The Soul of a New Machine, and his long-time editor Richard Todd, have collaborated on this book about writing nonfiction. I think some of it applies to fiction too since telling stories well is a key element of all writing. The book has the usual warnings about using clichés, some guidelines about whether to write in the first or the third person, and some suggestions for structuring time in a story.
But the best parts of Good Prose are about being a writer, about the sensibilities a writer needs and the ethics they should have. It’s about the relationships writers have with their subjects and the obligations that come with them. It explores the distinction between fact and truth and the writer’s responsibilities to each.
Maybe Good Prose belongs in a third category.
Here’s my favorite quote from the book, attributed to author and essayist David Foster Wallace:
“… the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose: the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love, instead of the part that just wants to be loved.”