I think Ann Patchett is a beautiful writer, but when I read her philosophy behind that beautiful writing, something inside me rises up in protest.
She takes issue in The Getaway Car with a fellow guest at a wedding who believes everyone has a Great American Novel inside them. Ann Patchett thinks that’s not the case just as not everyone has a great floral arrangement within them. I think they’re both confusing the relatively modern construct of a novel (first the alphabet and the act of writing had to develop, along with the printing press, etc.) with story which always was and always will be. The earliest humans sitting around the very first campfire probably said something like: “tell us the one about ...” I doubt they asked for a query and synopsis first.
Not everyone has a floral arrangement in them, but everyone has an appreciation for and a capacity for understanding beauty. We all have a story. We all ARE stories with a distinct beginning, middle and an end. I once interviewed Al Hyslop who had been an actor, a journalist, the producer of Kaptain Kangaroo, and a producer of Sesame Street and after he retired, a director of citizen theater. I asked him how he was able to transition between all those professions. He didn’t make a distinction between any of them. He maintains he was always in the business of good stories, well told.
The story is a field of wildflowers; the great American novel is a bouquet of cut flowers artificially arranged. Confusing the great American novel with story is confusing the vehicle with the trip. Sure, not everyone is capable of writing the American novel, that is, not everyone has a Mercedes, the means, the style, the knowledge of the craft, but we all have an intrinsic sense of direction of a story. Training helps, but isn’t the point in and of itself. Doctors, for example were trained at one point in blood-letting. MFA programs are training writers with the knowledge and craft of the times, for good or for bad. That doesn’t mean what they’re producing will be a timeless story.