One of my favourite memories from the UK was reading Anne Lamott’s classic writing memoir, Bird by Bird, on a lazy afternoon in 2009 in the Borders bookstore in Cambridge. It was one of those books that writing courses love to use and extract from at every opportunity because it’s simple, instructional, insightful and poignant — the kind of book that writers would love to write. It’s why the memoir is still going strong almost 20 years since it was first published in 1994.
I never got to finish the book in Cambridge but I recently had the opportunity to revisit it — from start to finish this time — as part of my New Year’s resolution to read more in 2013. I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time around, and its nuggets of wisdom resonated with me probably even more this time after I spent the last few years trying to figure out how much I really want to write.
It’s one of those books you can get through in a single sitting, as long as you can stomach Lamott’s neurotic, somewhat exaggerated style when constantly describing her mood swings and insecurities as a writer. Much of it is absolutely spot on and laugh-out-loud funny, but I can understand if can irk some readers after a while.hn
On the other hand, it’s also a book you can pick up at any time and skip to a particular chapter if you need guidance or inspiration on a specific area or topic. It helps that the book is neatly separated into five parts of varying lengths: writing, the writing frame of mind, help along the way, publication — and other reasons to write, and the last class.
The first part, writing, is perhaps the most useful for a new writer as it gives concrete advice and tips such as using short assignments to get the ball rolling, not being afraid to write shitty first drafts and avoiding perfectionism like the plague. The chapters on character, plot dialogue and set design, among others, can also be very instructive.
Part two, the writing frame of mind, is more about developing the mentality of a writer — to be alert and looking for ideas wherever you go and whenever you can, caring about what you write, and how to deal with petty stuff like jealousy.
Part three, help along the way, gives practical tips on getting you through your project or life in general, whether it is using index cards, joining writing groups or overcome writer’s block.
The fourth part, publication, has a lot on the business side of the industry and probably contains the most of what writers don’t want to hear — you’ll probably never get published, and if you do, you’ll probably not sell a lot of books. Either way, there’s not much money in writing for the vast majority of us.
The final part, the last class, brings it all together and reminds us why we write and why it’s worth the hassle.
Needless to say, I love this book. It’s not only useful but is also a great read full of laughs and moments where you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement. I suppose this is what Lamott is referring to when she urges writers to connect with their readers through writing the truth. It has less concrete advice than say, Stephen King’s On Writing, one of the bibles of the genre, but it’s also a classic in its own unique way.
And now, for some of my favourite passages from the book.
On how writers’ believe what being published for the first time would be like:
I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem.
They believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo. Entire paragraphs and manuscripts of disappointment and rejection and lack of faith would be wiped out by one push of a psychic delete button and replaced by a quiet, tender sense of worth and belonging. Then they could wrap the world in flame.
On what publication is really about:
But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises, That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.
But the fact of publication is the acknowledgment from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you’re a published writer, and you are in that rare position of getting to make a living, such as it is, doing what you love best. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy.
On writing for the sake of publication:
The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get to where you want to be that way, I tell them. There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it…But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.
Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer.
About first drafts:
Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few still warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and them let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t — and in fact, you’re not supposed to — know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.
One line of dialogue that rings true reveals a character in a way that pages of description can’t.
Dialogue is more like a movie than it is like real life, since it should be more dramatic. There’s a greater sense of action.
There are a number of things that help when you sit down to write dialogue. First of all, sound your words — read them out loud…Second, remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says…Third, you might want to try putting together two people who more than anything else in the world to avoid each other, people who would avoid whole cities just to make sure they won’t bump into each other.
On having a likable narrator:
Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal.
On the relationship between plot and character:
Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.
Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up.
Find out what each character cares about most in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake.
I imagine my characters, and let myself daydream about them. A movie begins to play in my head, with motion pulsing underneath it, and I stare at it in a trancelike state, until words bounce around together and force a sentence.
On structure and plotting:
My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they’ve outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.
…I sat down every day and wrote five hundred to a thousand words describing what was going on in each chapter. I discussed who the characters were turning out to be, where they’d been, what they were up to, and why. I quoted directly from the manuscript sometimes, using some of the best lines to instill confidence in both me and my editor, and I figured out, over and over, point A, where the chapter began, and point B, where it ended, and what needed to happen to get my people from A to B. And then how the B of the last chapter would lead organically into point A of the next chapter. The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream.
On creating drama:
Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention. The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff — just like a joke. The setup tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, Why are we here anyway? What is it that you’ve been trying to give? Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable. So, in fact, will the audience. And eventually the audience will become impatient, disappointed, and unhappy. There must be movement.
Imagine yourself as the set designer for a play or for the movie version of the story you are working on. It may help you to know what the room (or the ship or the office or the meadow) looks like where the action will be taking place. You want to know its feel, its temperature, its colors. Just as everyone is a walking advertisement for who he or she is, so every room is a little showcase of its occupants’ values and personalities. Every room is about memory. Every room gives us layers of information about our past and present and who we are, our shrines and quirks and hopes and sorrows, our attempts to prove that we exist and are more or less Okay.
You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.
Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.
Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know — people who are, in other words, not you.
So whenever I am leaving the house without my purse — in which there are actual notepads, let alone index cards — I fold an index card lengthwise in half, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it.
On writing regularly:
So much of writing is about sitting down and doing it every day, and so much of it is about getting into the custom of taking in everything that comes along, seeing it all as grist for the mill. This can be a very comforting habit, like biting your nails.
On getting someone to read you drafts.
The person may not have an answer to what is missing or annoying about the piece, but writing is so often about making mistakes and feeling lost. There are probably a number of ways to tell your story right, and someone else may be able to tell you whether or not you’ve found one of these ways.
Imagine that you are getting ready for a party and there is a person at your house who can check you out and assure you that you look wonderful or, conversely, that you actually look a little tiny tiny bit heavier than usual in this one particular dress or suit or that red makes you look just a little bit like you have sarcoptic mange. Of course you are disappointed for a moment, but then you are grateful that you are still in the privacy of your own home and there is time to change,
On writer’s block:
Writer’s block is going to happen to you. You will read what little you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit…Or else you haven’t been able to write anything at all for a while. The fear that you’ll never write again is going to hit you when you feel not only lost and unable to find a few little bread crumbs that would identify the path you were on but also when you’re at your lowest ebb of energy and faith.
The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.
On overcoming writer’s block:
I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing — just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try and write three hundred words every day.
In the beginning, when you;re first starting out, there are a million reasons not to write, to give up. That is why it is of extreme importance to make a commitment of finishing sections and stories, to driving through to the finish,
All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh, wild way…Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning.
And lastly, about finding your own voice:
And the truth of your experience can only come through your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.