I love reading The Wall Street Journal every morning (print version), not because of the business news or the political slant but because the Journal is devoted to great storytelling in all forms. In addition to excellent storytelling in their reports from all corners of the world, they frequently feature stories about writing, writers, and the creative journey.
Last week, I came upon a short little piece by Ann Patchett, the novelist and bookstore owner. It was under the heading “A Week in the Life…” and had the title “Of Dogs, Books and Tender Hearts.” It took up a very small bit of real estate on the page. I was immediately drawn to it. Patchett is a great storyteller – Bel Canto is one of my all-time favorite novels and I could teach a whole memoir class on Truth and Beauty and still have a ton to say -- and I was eager to see what she would make of her 1000 words.
I’m going to break down her piece here, because she does one genius thing that most writers fail to do or forget to do or fear to do – which is that she gives everything away in the first moments of her story. She shows her hand – not in a garish “look at ME” way, but in a subtle “Are you with me?” way that invites the reader in and holds us there until the end. It is proof that the best writers know precisely what they are doing, and not one word goes to waste as they set about their goal of luring us in.
I would suggest opening up the PDF to follow along as I break it down.
1. The “tell” actually begins in the title, Of Dogs, Books and Tender Hearts. The reader’s mind instantly tries to figure out the pattern – what do those three things have to do with each other? Is this a story about a book about a devoted dog who dies? Where the Red Fern Grows, Lassie, The Art of Racing in the Rain? One senses that the answer is no because of the context – the Wall Street Journal – and because it feels too obvious, too on the nose.
Is this a story about the sensitivity of book-loving, down-owning folks? Their camaraderie? Their superiority to non-book-loving dog-owning folks? That could be, because Patchett doesn’t just own a bookstore – she is an evangelist for bookstores.
And so, filled with curiosity, I began to read.
2. On the 5th line, there is more revealed – everything is revealed actually. Patchett identifies a runner but she goes too far. She gives away too much information. I read the line three times – because why was this extra information there? Byron wasn’t just identified as a neighbor and dog owner, he was identified in terms of his profession and he was identified in terms of his relationship to Patchett’s husband. Everyone else on the list in that paragraph has just one identifier. So Byron is special and we suspect that he is special because of his relationship to Karl – because Patchett doesn’t just say “my husband.” She goes so far as to say his name. I mean, why even bring Karl up in the first place? He wasn’t out on the road with a dog. So we suspect that this is a story about Byron and Karl. And since so much care was taken to show us that the two men work together, we suspect that the story has something to do with a hospital, and hospitals, and perhaps with Karl. We carry that little bit of intel with us as we read ahead. With these giveaways, Patchett has us on her hook, and she takes the time to reel us in.
3. Everything in the middle of the piece – the passages about smoothies and the odd little detail about spinach and the very specific details about the everyday reality of dogs – feels like a set-up. Patchett is so carefully drawing us into the pedestrian realities of everyday life that we can feel the tension building. We can feel that we shouldn’t trust this everyday-ness of life. When she writes, “From time to time, I believe I’ve found The Answer to Life, and right now I think it’s spinach” I literally laughed – what if the answer to life is indeed spinach! -- and then immediately thought Uh oh. Right now the answer to life is spinach. Which means that soon it is going to be something else entirely… and that realization felt sinister.
4. When Patchett writes “the next morning,” she reinforce the everydayness of the day before. Yesterday things were ordinary and the big concerns were about dog biscuits and spinach, but today is going to be different. Suspense hands in the air.
5. The long explanation about her cell phone in this context feels like a neon sign. The information is so odd – Ann Patchett doesn’t use a cellphone, and only turns it on a few times a year – and used in this way, the information is riveting. We just know something is going to happen with that phone, and we have a terrible feeling it’s not going to be good.
6. When Byron calls, we feel our heart squeeze, the panic rise. We are there with Patchett in the bookstore, with her confusion, her surprise, her panic. This is a master storyteller doing what she does best.
7. Patchett does not go deep into the conversation or the situation. She spends WAY more time in this piece on the dogs in the bookstore than she does on what happened to Karl – we don’t know what exactly happened or where or when or why. She goes right to the part that matters most – “my husband is not having a heart attack.”
That line is so powerful. It harkens straight back to the opening of the piece – an ordinary day where people are walking their dogs and exchanging pleasantries on the street outside their homes, an ordinary day where nothing tragic happens. In other words, this is not a piece about a bad day. It’s a piece about gratitude for the ordinary day, for the neighbors, for another day lived with books and dogs and people you love.
8. When Patchett writes at the very end “…everything in the entire world is more beautiful than I had previously imagined,” we remember that earlier she indicated that the answer to life was spinach. We know that she has come to a place where she understands that the blessings of an ordinary day – a husband who is alive and well, a great new novel to read – are even more beautiful than she had imagined less than 24 hours before.
The entire piece makes perfect sense the way a crossword puzzle does when you slot in the last word and it all fits. There is a deep satisfaction – an “I knew it” in the reader’s brain. And it's all because Patchett gave away the story so early on. Without the title and those early giveaways, we would have been lost, wandering through a rambling story about some woman’s random day. The giveaways are like a lighthouse beam, drawing us home.