Tracy Kidder looks like a very serious writer, but as soon as he starts speaking, it is delightfully clear he doesn’t take himself seriously.
Kidder was in Seattle for the Seattle Arts & Lectures series and held forth discussing his writing, followed by audience questions, moderated by Dr. Ed Taylor of the University of Washington’s Educational and Leadership Policy Studies.
Kidder’s talk titled Another Set of Eyes centered on his nearly 40-year relationship with editor, Richard Todd, who he met early in his career at The Atlantic Monthly. Todd is reported to have incidentally suggested the topic for Kidder’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Soul of a New Machine. Many readers know Kidder from his remarkable books, The New York Times bestseller Strength in What Remains (2009) and Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003).
Kidder joked that his working relationship with Todd now exceeds the lifespan of an average marriage by about 35 years, and is in many ways exceptional.
Kidder and Todd are collaborating on a new non-fiction work concerning the discipline of the non-fiction writer. This book will address three key aspects of non-fiction writing — ideas, expressed through essays — self examination, expressed through memoir — and writing dealing with the world, narrative non-fiction.
Discussion rolled around to his early days at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and descriptions of how workshops tended to feel a bit more like inquisitions, comically noting the less invasive leads into pointed discussions, such as, ‘can you describe this character in a bit more detail”… also mentioning the peculiar trend the most acerbic professors had of scorning the institution that paid their salaries.
Luckily, fiction didn’t seem to hold him, and even though he claims to have written a few pages of a novel, at the end of the day, he considered the doodles in the margins, left for a future biographer, to be the most interesting reading. On finding non-fiction writing, Kidder says his small forays into journalism,‘felt like a welcome escape from my own mind.’
Many of the questions focused on writing technique and Kidder provided insights into his process, mentioning a few of the words he uses to mark the landscape of his writing, like exteriors and watches. When asked about structure, Kidder responds that while there is always structure, allowing the theme without the naming of the theme, he avoids the paradoxical tiredness of linear presentation. Part of the interest and texture to narrative non-fiction is that some things become small, others large. Concluding, he simply states “rituals help.”
As the talk closes, the full house applauds and lingers for a moment seeming to savor the warmth of a good conversation.