In 1973, Richard Todd was a young editor at The Atlantic. His boss, The Atlantic‘s editor-in-chief Bob Manning, had just handed him a manuscript with a note scrawled across the top, “Let’s face it, this fellow can’t write.” The story was about a mass murder in California and its author was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop named Tracy Kidder.
Todd disregarded Manning’s comment and worked with Kidder on the piece until it was worthy of publication. Seven years later, Kidder would win the Pulitzer Prize for a book that Todd had edited. The two men have collaborated as editor and writer ever since. In their new book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, the they share the lessons they’ve learned from one another over the past four decades.
Christie Aschwanden talked with Todd about Kidder, their friendship and the art of nonfiction. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Good Prose describes a decades-long relationship between you and Kidder. How did this relationship develop?
Soul of a New Machine was almost the first book I edited, and so we sort of began together, and we’ve grown together in the business. But the other part of it is that Tracy is unusually open to editing. He’s done what is difficult to do, which is to involve an editor in the process early in the game. It’s great if you can do it, but it takes thick skin.
You recount times when Kidder would just show up at your house for days on end. Your relationship seems to have an unusual closeness.
Yes. You’re right. Maybe too close for comfort, is that what you’re saying?
Does it feel that way?
Well, it’s an exaggeration to say every day, but there are long stretches when we do talk daily. And we don’t go for very long without being in touch. When Tracy’s working on a book, he checks in with me about little steps, or to say things out loud or to read a sentence or something. It’s part of the way we work, and it has been useful. It helps that we’re friends and so there’s other stuff to talk about. But, yeah, it is peculiar, I admit.
One piece of advice that you give to writers is to involve editors early on in the process. But how do you do that these days, when people don’t use the phone like they used to?
Yeah, I guess we’re describing a kind of ideal situation. Some editors just don’t want to see things until they’re further along. And you can’t force yourself on some of them. It just happens that sometimes editors and writers develop a particular association. So it’s a very idiosyncratic thing, I suppose.
What advice would you give to writers who want more guidance or collaboration from their editor?
Writers have to be careful. They don’t want to camp out on their editor’s door. They don’t want to start stalking. But, at the same time, I think writers may be inclined to err in the opposite direction. That is, they may hide a little bit from the editors or feel that they have to have something perfect before they deliver. And with some editors that’s true. I think it tends to be a little truer in magazine writing. With some magazines anyway, you really want to deliver something that you think is absolutely right, because there’s a pack of people there who are ready to rewrite if you don’t.
But if you have one editor that you work with, and that editor is sympathetic, then you can try some stuff out. You have to feel your way. But, especially with books, I think people do tend to make the mistake of hiding under their desk until the editor comes looking for them. I’ve made that mistake. With my previous book, I wish that I’d been in closer touch with the editor before I delivered.
The relationship between you and Kidder sounds like a true collaboration. Is the trick here to think of the editor as someone who’s willing to help instead of someone who’s going to come in and stomp around and squash your words?
Exactly. I like to think that I don’t present myself as a stomper. There are things a writer can do, like be willing to make him or herself a little more vulnerable and seek advice when there’s time to take it. I think sometimes editors do the opposite of stomping. They just throw up their hands. You’ve got a 375-page manuscript there. It’s delivered. And you sense that the writer doesn’t have the stamina to revise. And had you seen it at 75 pages, and seen something you thought was going in the wrong direction, you could correct course and work together.
One thing you say about Kidder is that he has an obsessive mind. When I’m in the middle of a project, I often feel a bit possessed, and it has occurred to me that obsession may be a necessary step in the process. Do you agree? Is an obsessive mind an asset or even a requirement for writers?
Well, I don’t know if it’s a requirement, but I do think it is an asset. Perhaps an unfortunate asset, but an asset. If you become single-minded, your book takes over your life. Books sometimes require that. It means that people around you, well, you possibly have a little bit more than they want to know about your subject. But that’s fine for the world at large, because your subject gets refined and you deliver a book.
Something you said in the book really struck me: “Perspective can be death to a writer in the midst of a book.”
Oh yes. At a certain point, your book is on the shelf, and later—years later—you can see that well, that was a nice contribution. I’m glad I did that. But at the time you’re writing it, you think, God, that’s all there is to it? You lose heart. I think writers have to overvalue it in order to value it at all. Let perspective come later. Just get it done. Get carried away.
So the writer jumps in. And one of the first decisions is where to start the story. You make an argument for quiet beginnings. Why is that? You seem averse to these beginnings that start in the middle of the action, which have definitely become a common structure in magazines.
Yeah, the wisdom is, don’t bury the lead, which often means start with something that’s exciting and will grab the reader. But here’s my rationale. Partly it’s that, as you say, it’s fashionable to do this, and I suppose what I’m doing is reacting to fashion negatively. But there is a kind of mechanical reason for this, and that is, if you look at pieces that start in the middle of things, they achieve immediate engagement. But they also force you to build a structure in which you spend a lot of time catching up, and going back and explaining this and that and the other thing. You start out in the interest of speeding up the action, but ultimately you end up slowing it down and confusing the reader, which is death. As a reader I don’t want to be confused. The writer’s first job is to help me understand, not to dazzle me. So that’s why I say don’t be afraid to bury the lead. The lead sometimes belongs buried.
We’ve all been told that the story’s drama comes from conflict, but you say it’s a mistake to assume that this conflict needs to come between characters. Sometimes the most important conflict happens within a character or within the narrator.
Yeah. I think that’s true. On the screen you can be diverted for 90 minutes by a good guy and a bad guy. If you’ve got that, that’s great. But usually you don’t. And life is more interesting, generally, because you don’t. Because people are complicated, and so on. You were one thing and then you were another. You understood something.
You call this a narrative of revelation.
Yes, I don’t know whether we coined this phrase, but we thought we coined it. The good stories, even if they do involve action, they involve learning something. They involve somebody coming to some recognition that then you share, and the reader shares. Or it may be in fact the narrator going into a situation, and having a sort of aha understanding of it. And that’s just far more interesting and more transferable to the rest of life. You’ve got a shootout. Well, okay. But if you have someone coming to an understanding about something they did wrong and why they did it—that’s something that travels into the reader’s life.
We said this partly as a kind of comfort to writers, because writers think, “Oh my god, my story’s fallen apart.” But often the story hasn’t fallen apart. You just haven’t figured out what the damn story is.
You write that most problems with writing are structural, even on the scale of the page.
I think that that’s true. What you choose to tell first affects everything else. You look at a paragraph, and it’s often just tangled. This relates to that business of not being afraid to bury the lead. If the lead is distorting the shape of things and making it hard to follow, then take it apart. People have a bias against chronology, thinking that telling something in the order that it happened is going to be boring. Well, sometimes it is and sometimes the order does need to be changed. But you want to change it in the service of helping the reader to understand, not exciting the reader. What’s the clear and engaging way to tell this? Some people may have a greater tolerance for confusion than I do as a reader, but I say a writer’s first obligation to me is to do what they can to work through this so that I get it.
You write in the book that stories lack propulsion if they lack sequence. What exactly do you mean by that?
You want to know where you are, you want to know where you are in time, and you want to know where you’re going. Now, the sequence may be a sequence of ideas and logic rather than a sequence of event and time. So that you can be plucking little fragments of information from here and there and arranging them, as long as you’re not lying about the order in which they happened, then that’s fine.
One of the decisions you make is this: Is this structure going to be dominated by idea and the logic of idea, or is it going to be dominated by event? And often it’s some mixture of those. But there’s a balance. If ideas need to come forward, then events maybe need to be scrambled. You can see this in microcosm in John McPhee. He’ll often slow to little fragments of dialogue that happened at one time or another. So he’ll make a general statement about somebody. And then he’ll just align some quotes, not saying that they happened sequentially, but they’re just little fragments of evidence that support a general remark about the person. Sequence of time is being violated but sequence of thought is being preserved.
What advice do you give to writers struggling to get through their shitty first drafts?
Tracy is a perfect case in point. When he started out, he would labor over these first drafts. And he talks about sitting up all night trying to write the first sentence, and having nothing but a wastebasket full of stuff. He has a great phrase for this, which is, write quickly to avoid remorse about having written badly.
One piece of advice I give for people doing first drafts is to recognize that structure is important, but don’t get prematurely bound up in it. I encourage people to write as well as they can for as long as they can. When the writing is turning sour, just stop and move on to another section. Don’t waste a lot of time trying to connect things. That work lies ahead of you and if it’s obvious that you can connect them, great. But don’t get hung up on it. You may emerge from the first draft with a collection of fragments, but the fragments then can be looked at, and you can get a little distance on them and you can see what order they’re supposed to go in.
It takes a superior mind, a mind certainly superior to mine, to be able to map something out completely in your head. A friend of mine once remarked that it’s almost the definition of a book that it’s a piece of writing too large to hold in your mind at one time. So you’ve got to take it in pieces.
You’ve been both a writer and an editor. Do you find one or the other more difficult, or are they both hard in different ways?
Oh no. It’s much harder to write. I think editors should always, always remember that. Not everyone can edit well, but I think no good editor would say that it’s harder to do that than it is to write. And it helps to write, though being a writer can get in your way as an editor when you think you know the right way to do it, when what you really know is your way of doing it. On the other hand, having suffered as a writer can be useful to you as an editor because you know and are sympathetic to what the writer is going through. On balance it helps, with an important caveat—you can be too forceful about wishing your own sensibility on somebody else.
Are there any lessons you learned writing your previous book [The Thing Itself] that you couldn’t have learned as an editor?
I learned a lot about my own bad habits. That book suffered from procrastination. So that’s the main thing I learned. And I learned that the next thing I sit down to do, I will go about in a much more orderly way. I will follow my own advice, and get some help on it earlier in the game and talk some things out. I really didn’t have an intellectual companion on that book, and could have used one.
But will you really follow your own advice? You won’t just tell yourself, I’m not going to procrastinate this time?
That’s one of those pledges. I’ll never smoke another cigarette. I’ll be better at it this time.
Christie Aschwanden is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, O, the Oprah Magazine, Mother Jones, Health, Skiing, Runner’s World, Men’s Journal, National Wildlife, Reader’s Digest, and New Scientist. She was a National Magazine Award finalist in 2011, and she blogs with some science writer friends at The Last Word on Nothing. She lives in western Colorado. Follow Christie on Twitter @cragcrest.