Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Best writing and life advice: Bird by Bird

Sitting outside, drinking wine, discussing writing.  I'd much rather do that than the torture of sitting in front of my laptop or notebook, paralyzed by my perfectionism, that what I see in my mind will not be translated onto the page.  My friends fellow writers, we agreed that part of the challenge is simply to sit down, shut out the distractions, and be present.  (A lot like life, no?) One of my friends said she has little note that reads: "Ass in chair."  If you sit, it will flow? And somehow, it does, and being present, pen to paper, really is better than talking about it.

I think all writers have prompts scattered about the desk, ranging from the encouraging about what it takes to be a writer: "Three things," says Maya Angelou, "Something to say, the ability to express it, and finally, the courage to express it all," to the downright threatening, hostile notes: "How else do you plan to feed the cat?"

When I bought Anne Lamott's book Bird by Bird in college, I found not only great writing advice but also a kindred spirit.  About halfway in, I called my sister, who also had just discovered the book, and we spent that night quoting passages to each other and belly laughing. 

"I suspect that he (Lamott's father) was a child who thought differently than his peers, who may have had serious conversations with grownups, who as a young person, like me, accepted being alone quite a lot.  I think that this sort of person often becomes either a writer or a career criminal.  Throughout my childhood I believed that what I thought about was different from what other kids thought about.  It was not necessarily more profound, but there was a struggle going on inside me to find some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in my head.  I read more than other kids; I luxuriated in books.  Books were my refuge."

Lamott warns her students that "writing, and even getting good at it, and having books and stories and articles published, will not open the doors that most of them hope for.  It will not make them well. ... My writer friends, and they are legion, do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment.  Most of them go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested."

On the plus side, "Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. ... What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. ... An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift."

But what about that paralyzing perfectionism, those tapes playing in my head that tell me it will never be good enough? 

Lamott offers "the two single most helpful things" she can tell us about writing. 

Short assignments.  "I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.  It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being."  Lamott quotes E.L. Doctorow, that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

And secondly?  Lamott tells this story: "Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day.  We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.  Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.' "

Bird by bird.  Just finish what you can see in that one inch picture frame.  Best writing (and life) advice I've ever read.

(Photo: Workspace that I long to recreate, with Boho writing desk , Sevenstar Amat,


Anonymous said...

What an outstanding post. I really enjoyed this and will have to get my hands on Lamott's book. Writing seems so difficilt, and I'm always impressed by authors who tackle so many challenging subjects, feelings, thoughts, and like you said worlds.

Rebecca Snavely said...

Des - this is definitely a must-read. Lamott srikes the fine balance, hysterical and moving. Let me know when you read it!