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Authors: Tracy Kidder

Good Prose

BOOK: Good Prose
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Copyright © 2013 by John Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

R
ANDOM
H
OUSE
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Kidder, Tracy.
Good prose : the art of nonfiction / Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
eISBN: 978-0-679-60472-3
1. Authorship. 2. Prose literature—Authorship. 3. Creative nonfiction—Authorship. I. Todd, Richard. II. Title.
PN
145.
K
466 2013
808.02—dc23 2012021165

www.atrandom.com

Jacket design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Front-jacket photograph: Blake Fitch/Glasshouse Images
Back-jacket photograph: Matthew Jacques/Shutterstock

v3.1

 

Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other.
A
NTHONY
T
ROLLOPE
,
Barchester Towers

CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

We met in Boston, at the offices of
The Atlantic Monthly
. Neither of us can remember the date, but it must have been around the time our first joint effort as writer and editor was published, in July 1973.

By then
The Atlantic
was 117 years old. You sensed lineage when you walked up to its headquarters, an old brownstone on the corner of Arlington and Marlborough streets, facing the Public Garden. It was prime real estate, but it was also in Boston, not New York or Los Angeles. This was a magazine headquarters that seemed to say it was untouched by commerce, like the wealthy Boston matron who, in an old joke, says, “We don’t
buy
our hats, we
have
our hats.” A boiler room clamor faintly tolled in the offices upstairs, which had achieved High Shabbiness: faded mementos on the walls, layers of discolored paint on the ornate moldings, threadbare carpeting. The building once, in the era of Silas Lapham, had been a single-family mansion, and much of the floor plan had survived—many small rooms in back, in what must have been the servants’ quarters, and in front, offices with fireplaces that editors used now and then when the Boston winter outperformed the heating plant.

It was an era that in memory seems closer to
The Atlantic
’s distant past than to our present, an era of typewriters and secretaries—mostly young, wry women with first-class educations trying to find their way into publishing careers. There were a few older women, two of them editors; one wore a hat at her desk. The women of both ranks kept regular hours. The men arrived midmorning and not long afterward went to lunch. “I’m going to grab a sandwich,” the editor-in-chief, Bob Manning, would tell his assistant, as he headed for the all-male sanctuary and full luncheon menu of the Tavern Club. The more junior men stepped out soon afterward, and often ended up at the Ritz Bar, a block away on Arlington Street. An editor with a writer in tow could charge his lunch to the magazine. Eggs Benedict, a couple of small carafes of white wine, and back to work, rarely later than two thirty. Many afternoons were cheery.

The Atlantic
was more or less broke by then, just barely paying its expenses and about to become an exercise in cultural deficit spending for its owner. Editors didn’t earn much, less than twenty thousand a year (which bought more then than now, of course, in part because there weren’t as many things to buy). A young writer was paid by the piece, two or three thousand dollars at most for a long article that might take four months to complete.

The Atlantic
’s archives held a trove of articles and stories and poems by just about every major American writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The magazine was still one of America’s preeminent cultural arbiters, but the role was increasingly hard to play. In politics,
The Atlantic
had long stood for liberal thought. Now its editors stared out their windows onto a world in which liberalism was under attack from both sides, from the Weathermen as well as the Nixon White House. Every month the staff argued over the magazine’s cover and usually ended up with something colorful and overstated, in the vain hope that a touch of sensation would improve newsstand sales. But the covers threatened the magazine’s cultural legitimacy, the real attraction for its true audience and for many who worked there.


Nearly forty years is long enough to make the “us” of back then feel like “they.” We were young—Kidder twenty-seven, Todd thirty-two—and each of us was trying to stake out a literary future. To Todd, editing at
The Atlantic
granted prestige, like owning a fine antique. If he’d been in charge, the magazine would have reverted to the monochrome covers of its heyday.

As for Kidder, the idea of publishing articles at
The Atlantic
was more than exciting enough, since he would have been grateful to be published anywhere. Phone calls were expensive back then and allowances for research miserly. For a young writer short of funds, it was convenient to spend time in the building, camping out as it were in one of its many vacant back offices and using the magazine’s phones for long-distance calls to sources for articles. Kidder spent many days and quite a few nights in the building, and many hours working with Todd, whose office had a fireplace and a view. After-hours provisions could be found in the bar in Manning’s office down the hall.

We called each other by our surnames, as our sergeants had in army basic training. To Kidder, a childhood for Todd seemed improbable—he must have been born old, and probably born ironic to boot. To Todd, and practically everyone else, Kidder was young beyond his years. He was plainly ambitious, but his self-esteem ranged from abject to grandiose. Once, at a Christmas party that went on too long, he confronted Bob Manning and announced, “I’m the best damn journalist in the Western Hemisphere.” Hung over and contrite the next morning, he was comforted by Todd, who said, “At least you didn’t claim the whole world.” Each imagined himself forbearing of the other.

Kidder wrote and rewrote many versions of his first
Atlantic
article, about a mass murder case in California. He had imagined the piece as a sequel to
In Cold Blood
. At some point Bob Manning sent the manuscript back to Todd, having scrawled on it, “Let’s face it, this fellow can’t write.” Todd kept this comment to himself and merely told Kidder that the piece still needed fixing, and the rewriting continued.

A long association had begun. Todd knew only that he had a writer of boundless energy. For Kidder, to be allowed not just to rewrite but to rewrite ad infinitum was a privilege, preferable in every way to rejection slips. And for Todd, it was possible to imagine that a writer willing to rewrite might turn out to be useful. Todd once remarked to a group of students, never expecting he would be quoted, “Kidder’s great strength is that he’s not afraid of writing badly.” The truth was that Kidder was afraid of writing badly in public, but not in front of Todd. Kidder would give him pieces of unfinished drafts. He would even read Todd passages of unfinished drafts, uninvited, over the phone. Very soon Todd understood when he was being asked for reassurance, not criticism, and would say, “It’s fine. Keep going.” When a draft was done, Todd would point out “some problems,” and another rewrite would begin.

That ritual established itself early on and persisted through many articles and Kidder’s first two books. A time came—midway through the writing of
Among Schoolchildren
, about a fifth-grade teacher—when Kidder began revising pages before Todd had a chance to read them. This was a means of delaying criticism forever. No doubt that was Kidder’s goal, and he could remain happily unaware of it as long as he kept on rewriting. Things went on that way for a while, until Todd said, in the most serious tone he could muster, “Kidder, if you rewrite this book again before I have time to read it, I’m not working on it anymore.” Kidder restrained himself, and the former routine was reestablished.

Eventually
The Atlantic
changed hands. Its book publishing arm was sold off, its headquarters relocated, its old building renovated into a corporate office. We lingered for a time, working under a new head editor, William Whitworth, who was to both of us exemplary. He once told Kidder, “Every writer needs another set of eyes.” When Todd moved on to do his own writing and to edit books, Kidder followed him.

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