What Can We Steal From Ann Patchett’s “The Mercies”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Mercies,” creative nonfiction
Author: Ann Patchett
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The essay was first published in Issue 114 of Granta.  (The “Aliens” issue.)  The piece was subsequently won a Pushcart Prize and was reprinted in the award’s 2013 anthology.  Ooh, and looky here.  Granta conducted an interview with Ms. Patchett about her essay.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Throughline

Discussion:
Ann Patchett is one of this generation’s literary lions, her novels and nonfiction at the top of the sales lists in addition to the reading lists of countless book lovers.  Ms. Patchett even opened a bookstore with some help from friends who were more experienced in running retail operations.  Parnassus Books now plays an important role in Nashville’s literary scene.

It is no surprise that Ms. Patchett’s dream of being a writer began in childhood.  It may be a surprise that she struggled to learn to write.  In “The Mercies,” Ms. Patchett tells the story of Sister Nena and the other Sisters of Mercy, the order that ran the school in which she had some of her most formative experiences.  Sister Nena had, in fact, been the focal point of Ms. Patchett’s “feelings of persecution” and the repository for her “childish anger” because she felt Sister Nena thought she was slow.  The story has a kind of happy ending.  The Sisters of Mercy have been forced to dissolve their operation and make their own way in life.  Sister Nena has the opportunity to feel a kind of independence for the first time.  Ms. Patchett gains catharsis by befriending Sister Nena.  Both women gain satisfaction from buying school supplies for needy children.

Ms. Patchett does something interesting with the structure of this piece of creative nonfiction.  I wondered for the first several pages why the author was telling me about Sister Nena and her colleagues.  The story is certainly interesting and well-written, but I felt the piece was missing a little bit of energy and purpose.  Ms. Patchett weaves in her purpose, pointing out that her life intersected with Sister Nena’s when she was young and later dropping the detail that Sister Nena called her to ask for a donation of money for school supplies.

Approximately 70% into the piece, Ms. Patchett makes her structure explicit.  There are a few throughlines in the piece:

  1. The rise and fall of the Sisters of Mercy and the struggles of some of the individual nuns.
  2. The touching relationship between nun and student, writer and teacher, older woman and younger woman.
  3. The sore feelings Ms. Patchett fostered for years and the process by which she got over her feelings of insecurity with respect to her desire to write.

The piece becomes increasingly complex as the reader progresses through it, taking the reader on a journey that resembles a conversation.  (Or the kind of conversations that Sister Nena and Ms. Patchett share.)  I do wonder why Ms. Patchett waited so long in the piece to reinforce the personal connection between the women.  Perhaps Ms. Patchett wanted to keep the focus on Sister Nena, finding that woman’s story more compelling than her own.

What Should We Steal?

  • Fake out your reader by making your story grow in scope and in pathos.  No, it’s not an unpleasant kind of “fake-out.”  One of the reasons that Ms. Patchett’s essay is successful is because she put increasing degrees of emotion and personal stakes into her piece.
  • Decide when “you” should be the protagonist and when you should be a supporting player.  Great actors can handle leading man roles in addition to meaty character parts.  Even if you’re writing about yourself, decide if you are really the most important person in your story and adjust your prominence accordingly.

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