“Obituaries are like near-death experiences for cowards. Reading them is a way for me to think about death while also keeping it at arm’s length. Obituaries aren’t really about death; they’re about life. . . . Reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine. Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live.”
I’ve never taken this particular advice (although maybe I will, now that I’ve given it some extra thought), but I did find myself thinking about it last night, after finishing a book and practicing one of my own unusual creative strategies — reading the acknowledgements.
While I have no proof, I assume that many readers treat the acknowledgments like moviegoers treat the credits — background noise to stretching your back, brushing off stray popcorn kernels, and milling out of the theater. It’s something that’s there while you reflect on the movie you just saw. Perhaps you’ll catch the name of the key grip or the animation director, but if you pay any attention at all, it’s cursory.
Acknowledgements are no different. You probably imagine a litany of names — editors, agents, friends, family, interviewees — that the author would like to publicly thank. A semi-public/semi-private tribute that few people outside of those thanked will actually read (much like the key grip, sitting in theater waiting to see his name in the credits, a name no one else will ever notice).
I would argue, though, that acknowledgements are vastly under appreciated. The secret is that they contain a wealth of information for writers looking to improve their craft, that should not just be read, but studied.
*I should note that I primarily read nonfiction, and this article will speak to and draw from nonfiction sources.
You Get to Meet the Author
Back of the jacket biographies are nothing more than carefully crafted promotional pieces, designed to highlight the author’s credentials and direct you toward their other works. They’re intentionally brief and devoid of personality.
If you want to get a sense of an author’s true personality, of course there are hints scattered throughout the book — they wrote it. But the acknowledgements give you a chance to peek behind the curtain. It’s a place where the author feels more comfortable opening up, writing as they would to a close friend (perhaps because they expect only their close friends will read it).
There are the almost too honest:
“As the author Joseph Epstein has noted, it is a lot better to have written a book than to actually be writing one. Writing a book requires a tremendous amount of patience, organization, and discipline, qualities that I lack and that writing a blog do not very much encourage.”Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise
“A final note about hedgehogs: In “The Case Against Freedom,” I spend a few pages describing a period of my life when I watched a hedgehog from the balcony of my Akron apartment. It turns out there is a problem with this memory — hedgehogs are not native to North America…I have to assume this is not a well-known fact, since I’ve been telling this anecdote for almost two decades and not one person has ever remarked, “Hey, idiot — don’t you realize there are no hedgehogs in Ohio?”Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong?
And the profound:
“Finally, I must acknowledge the inexpressible debt that I owe to my late wife, Valerie Chernow, who died during the composition of this work. She encouraged me to undertake the project and discussed it with me nightly until the end. For more than twenty-seven years, Valerie was my muse, my in-house editor, my delightful confidante. To this beautiful human being, I owe simply everything.”Ron Chernow, George Washington: A Life
Good luck finding any of that on the inside back cover.
You See the Author’s Process
There are authors who primarily write about writing (like the aforementioned Kelon), but many do not. Many write about their particular subject and go to the grave without ever noting how their work is done.
But we are living through the “Age of Process.” We’re all dying to know how writers write.
So if you’re curious about your favorite author’s process, or how a certain book came together, the acknowledgements can offer clues. They won’t be as detailed as a 2000 word blog post breaking down the book (or my friend Jason’s project Watch Me Write), but they can provide a small window into what the author was thinking around the time of publication.
Like the author’s inspiration:
“This book, quite literally, would not exist without Ira Glass and his sharp newspaper-clipping skills back in 1995. Thanks to Ira for coming up with the whole idea of radio comics, and getting me involved on the ground floor.”Jessica Abel, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio
Or how they see the world:
“This book has been years, perhaps decades, in gestation, so it is impossible to thank everyone who has given me inspiration and food for thought over that time. As I am obsessed with pointing out, the whole point of human thought is that it is a distributed phenomenon, living between and among human brains, rather than inside them. I am just a node in a huge network of knowledge, trying to capture an ethereal and evolving entity in a few inadequate words.”Matt Ridley, The Evolution of Everything
Although it’s buried among the “thank you’s,” acknowledgements can be chock-full of unsolicited creative advice.
You Realize a Book Isn’t Written in Isolation
To return to our movie credit metaphor for a moment — we’re all aware that blockbusters are not the product of any single individual. The credits make that clear. There’s a scriptwriter, a director, casting agents, actors, crew, editors, and more. But when it comes to a book, we tend to attribute credit entirely to the man or woman whose name is on the front cover. We imagine them as a lone wolf, working late into the night by lamplight, creating the work on their own.
And while it’s true that the person’s name gracing the cover did do the lions share of writing, it’s rarely the case that they brought the book to life on their own. If nothing else, the acknowledgements serve to remind every writer or aspiring writer that books are not brought forth from isolation.
Sometimes, research assistants shape the content:
“Thank you to my research assistant, Arikia Millikan, who provided boundless enthusiasm for the book, and whose influence is reflected in its keen interest in science and technology.”Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise
There are uncredited partnerships:
“This book is technically by Aziz Ansari, but I cannot overstate what a group effort it has been on many levels. To begin, I must thank Mr. Eric Klinenberg…Over the past two years we have spent an insane amount of time working together, trying to conceive and execute this project.” Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance
And some writers have a whole personal staff:
“On my personal ‘staff’ is a long list of studio assistants who have pitched in on this project by logging and transcribing tape, preparing pages, working up backgrounds, drawing panel borders, and all the other boring but necessary prep labor that goes into making comics.”Jessica Abel, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio
A skim of any acknowledgements section will reveal countless individuals that helped the author bring his or work to life.
In high school, when assigned reading for AP English, I would unceremoniously skip the forward and the introduction. I rationalized those sections away as “not part of the story” and therefore not relevant. Over time, of course, I realized that those sections were integral to the narrative, sometimes even more important — providing context, perspective, or occasionally, the main thesis. With time, this is how I’ve come to see the acknowledgements as well.
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