This year, for Christmas, a friend gave me Alice McDermott's "What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction." I'm not writing fiction at the moment. Now more focused on non-fiction in a job I love as coach to "reporting fellows" at the Pulitzer Center, all writing stories on "critical global issues that matter." Think refugees and migration. Think climate change. Think mental health in the midst of a pandemic.
Alice McDermott, author of "Charming Billy" and "At Weddings and Wakes," lives not far from me. I do not know her and I have never met her. But we may have unwittingly crossed paths pushing our carts through the grocery store.
She has much to say for writers of fiction, but as I read her book I couldn't help thinking this isn't all about fiction. So much is about writing plain and simple. How to find that perfect (or almost perfect) first sentence. (Look for sentences that appear without pre-planning on page 2 or 7 or 18.) We're reminded that some writers require more drafts than others—that's a bon mot from one of her British professors.
Regarding non-fiction, what speaks to me the most has to do with rules. When I taught writing, I would tell my students it's okay to break the rules (and you should break rules), but you need to know the rules. Alice McDermott says it better. "If you're breaking the rules, choosing, perhaps, redundancy over graceful variations, know why." She quotes John Steinbeck: "If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe than can be passed from one person to another." Sometimes following rules can spoil everything, she says referencing Gustave Flaubert.
Not that every bit of advice Alice McDermott gives applies to non-fiction. "What About the Baby?" is first and foremost about fiction writing. She tells us there are many things that must be locked out of the writing room: Friends, family, bills, and "a point to be made." As to the latter, not so for non-fiction. Keep that in the room.
The book is filled with treasures for writers of all kinds. She says "the best fiction is a proclamation, in spite of our mortality, in spite of suffering and death and intractable time, of our love for being alive." Many non-fiction writers would say the same.
And, of course, if she hadn't already won me over, she would have won be over by quoting William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the speech Mrs. Strout, my 10th grade English teacher at Oyster River High School, shared with her writing class. "There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat." A speech, a class, that made me want to be a writer.
And then there was this: The author's drive through Amagansett, New York, as the author was turning sixty. "It struck me as we passed through the village that the years I'd had my father in my life—thirty—were now to be outnumbered by the years I was without him."
It is the same for me. It is the same for my friend, also named Alice, who gave me this book.