I find it difficult to summarize essay collections, but I’d say Ann Patchett’s main point in These Precious Days is:
“Life has been wonderful. I never could have predicted any of it. And I am so so happy. So very very happy.” (paraphrased)
When I mentioned this to my husband, he commented that she sounded a bit smug, but I said, “No, not at all. She’s completely heartfelt and genuine,” perhaps influenced by the wholesome upbringing she alludes to when she describes her father and his comments on her writing – how her characters didn’t need sex, drugs or swearing in order to tell a good story – or perhaps indicated by her general life outlook of “no one deserves anything, life just comes, the good with the bad” (paraphrased from different sections) – how she was accepted to the Iowa Writers Workshop but denied admission elsewhere, how she published her first novel at 27 years of age, how she met her literary hero and inspiration (John Updike) face to face at an awards ceremony, and how she found deep friendship during the start of the pandemic, a friendship that culminated in the celebration of her friend’s lifelong dream.
This book is truly a celebration of life, written by someone who accepts its setbacks. So as I was reading, I wondered to myself: why is this book getting under my skin and making me so irritable?
A successful essay starts strong, as if to tell the reader, “Ecoutez-moi! Listen up! I am about to tell you what I have come to say.” Ann Patchett does this. She grabs our attention, carries us through, and imparts her life advice and experience.
This, however, is not a memoir. There is no central struggle for our main character. There are small battles (trying not to vomit while her husband practices repeated take offs and landings in a single engine plane somewhere west of Alaska) but no lifelong torment or deep-seated resentment or really any inner conflict. These essays are also completely void of blame. They are nearly void of sex, drugs and swearing. Which is refreshing, in a way, and in another way, I found myself wishing I was in the middle of a novel.
I decided that there are two main differences between a novel and an essay collection. A novel, unlike an essay collection, centers a particular question or quest or struggle. The bulk of the pages hang in this question, with the conclusion and denouement reserved for the smallest segment at the end. Therefore, the reader is immersed in the tension of one singular story for such a length that a conclusion, when it comes, is immensely satisfying.
Also, novels, of course, are fiction. There is no reading through them – as with essays – and wondering how you might react in a similar situation. Or rather, you might put yourself in a character’s shoes, but with a nonfiction piece, it could be entirely possible that you might have had a life such as the real life described on the pages, only it happened to another woman and not you. Perhaps novels contain brilliant turns of phrase or messaging sprinkled throughout, but you don’t have to take these messages as life advice the way they seem to come across in personal essays.
As a writer, it was hard for me to read about Ann Patchett’s successes, even though they are well deserved. To have written a novel by age 27! To have discovered the joy of running a bookstore – a profession that surprises her but one that I was primed to embrace having just finished Ellery Adams’ series The Secret, Book and Scone Society with delightful (though someone self-important) bookstore owner Nora Pennington!
And then there were other things that hit even closer to home, like the essay on giving away her things, including pricey flatware, and deciding that she didn’t have to be the woman she thought she would want to be when she was older, namely, the kind who collected all sorts of kitchenware.
Along those lines, about six months ago, my husband and I filled a 15 foot U-Haul with things from our house, mostly seasonal or occasional items that we kept in the basement. We thought this would cull the supply in preparation for our upcoming cross-country move and possibly make the house look better when it came time to stage and sell. As we loaded everything in, each thing seemed important, a part of our story, and yet, after I pulled the rolling door closed on the back of the truck, I allowed myself to imagine letting it all go, just driving it off to a donation center and getting rid of it all rather than driving it across the country and unpacking it in a new house. How nice, I thought, it would be to unburden myself of all of this stuff, and of the need to keep things around for the sake of memory or just-in-case scenarios.
But I couldn’t do that, which brings me to the next essay that was difficult for me to read: Ms. Patchett’s long-winded thoughts on why she doesn’t have children, why she never wanted children, and why she is irritated at people insinuating that her life is incomplete because of this. Perhaps I read her wrong, but I discovered, in this long essay that says many more things than this, that to her, children would have interfered with her writing. And, that she knew she wouldn’t be able to stand the mess.
There is a room in my new house that the previous owners used as a wine cellar. When I toured the house one year ago the racks were full. I have since counted, and there is space for over 200 bottles of wine. I’m sitting in this room right now, attempting to carve out a writing space for myself away from my kids, away from the mess, away from the noise. The racks are empty, begging to be repurposed. The tile floor is bare, craving a rug covering on this day when the temperature is below zero. Yes, Ann Patchett, kids would have interfered with your writing, and you always wanted to be a writer, so why take that chance at derailing what you wanted?
People have told me what makes me interesting is my many varied interests. Conversely, I look at people like Ann Patchett and am intensely curious. How is it, I ask her, that you could know so clearly what one thing you wanted, when there are so many things to pull at your attention?
Clearly, personality plays a role. But the mess! I can’t stand the mess. But does this mean I shouldn’t have been a mother? I think about the women I know who also can’t stand the mess and what wonderful mothers they are and think, no, this is not a reason not to be a mother.
But it is one to manage…perhaps by buying a house big enough that it comes with a wine cellar that can be converted to a writing closet. (Wow, now that sounds romantic, doesn’t it?)
My jealousy mounted at every essay and hit a peak near the end, just when her collection reached its own climax: For me, the pandemic accentuated a disconnection I had already felt with my friends and my community. For her, the pandemic ushered in an opportunity for life-changing friendship. So that was hard to read.
I closed the book and felt the need to remind myself of certain truths: I always wanted to be a mother. I always wanted to be a writer. My literary hero Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t publish until her sixties. Also, Ann Patchett is older than me, writing these essays with a perspective of someone much further down the road. Moreover, she is not a memoirist. There is one essay that delves a little bit into her writing life and practice of the craft, and in that essay, we see, just for a moment, her vulnerabilities, her reticence to examine the past, to examine her own early work. We see a reluctance to analyze herself or those close to her.
In short, she is a different type of writer than me, and there is no sense in comparing.
I am reminded of a quote that a writing instructor used at the beginning of a class I took a few years ago. Jean Rhys once said:
“All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
So do I give up, having not yet published a book at age 40?
No, I write. I feed the lake. And if you are reading this, then I thank you very much.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.