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Kidder Recalls Importance Of Trusting A Good Editor

Tracy Kidder met Richard Todd in 1973, when Kidder was a 29-year-old writing his first article for The Atlantic. Forty years later, the two have partnered on several articles and books and fostered a strong literary friendship. At the Lowell Humanity Series-sponsored event on Wednesday evening, “Tracy Kidder: Another Set of Eyes,” Kidder discussed the influence Todd had on him.

Kidder received a B.A. from Harvard University in 1967 and an M.F.A from the University of Iowa in 1974. Between 1967 and 1969 he served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. In 1982, he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine, a nonfiction narrative that he wrote with Todd about the creation of a new computer.

While at Iowa, Kidder’s peers edited his work at writing workshops. At the time he found these student editors to be unhelpful and ineffective, though.

“Young writers are more likely to envy their peers,” he said. “In workshops I sometimes said harsh dismissive things about some other students’ stories simply because they were no worse than my own.”

Eventually, Kidder began to write non-fiction, partially because there was less competition at Iowa in that area. Kidder’s first meeting with Todd was over the phone, after a contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly recommended him to Kidder. Their first meeting was about an article Kidder wanted to write about a mass murder in California, he said.

“For months afterward, Todd remained a voice on the phone delivering bad news,” Kidder said.

Kidder and Todd’s relationship developed from there. Eventually, Kidder learned that sharing his writing troubles with Todd could help him move forward.

After a particularly rough time early in their collaboration, when Kidder had written and re-written the opening sentence of an article over 100 times, he decided to go to Todd with his writing troubles. Todd recommended that he drink a gin and tonic and try again.

“His advice was a relief from the competing voices in my head,” Kidder said. “On the next day I actually started making progress, so I decided that sharing my writing troubles with him is something I should do more often.”

Kidder writes at least 10 drafts of each book before it is published. He writes his drafts in chunks that he sends to Todd as soon as he finishes each one. Todd emails him back with encouragement, even though Kidder is not sure if Todd actually reads these very early drafts. This process goes on for at least a year, Kidder said.

“I’ve never actually asked if he reads my rough drafts,” Kidder said. “I don’t want to know. Each one is usually, though not always, closer to the final thing, like golf shots.”

Although the two have gone over manuscripts in restaurants and offices, the ideal location is a large room where Todd can pace, Kidder said. When editing a close-to-final draft of the manuscript, Todd prefers to lay out the papers and pace around them while discussing the necessary changes with Kidder. Kidder used to believe that independence was crucial to writing well, but now trusts Todd to find out what is wrong in the manuscript.

“I had sometimes imagined that complete independence was a precondition to writing well, like drinking or living in a garret,” he said.

An editor at The Atlantic once told Todd that Kidder would never make it as a writer. Todd told Kidder this recently-40 years after the fact.
“I guess he thought I was stable enough to take it,” he said. “He was right to withhold that remark for that long.”

The relationship these two men share is deeply personal-Kidder has worked with other editors, but never to the extent that he’s worked with Todd; and Todd has worked with other writers, but Kidder has never experienced a bond similar to what he has with Todd.

“I really haven’t had any other editors,” he said. “I’m very lucky. It would have been hard for me to proceed without his help.”

March 13, 2014