By far, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott has been the most recommended book on writing among friends and strangers alike. I began to feel like I couldn’t call myself a writer until I’d read it. Well now I have.
Anne Lamott has a stunning voice and style. I can really relate to its directness, frankness. Her approach is almost conversational. She says things we all think but never say to others. I’d previously read her book about life with a toddler, Operating Instructions. Among all the books I’d read on pregnancy and childbirth, hers was the most honest and real.
Bird by Bird’s focus was to teach writers how to approach writing as a craft, as a lifestyle. The book is filled with specific details about plot, theme, and character. Very useful, yes, but what I liked about the book was the pockets of wisdom developed while watching and living life. “For some of us, good books and beautiful writing are the ultimate solace, even more comforting than exquisite food. So write about the things that are most important to you. Love and death and sex and survival are important to most of us. Some of us are also interested in God and ecology.” (P. 108) It’s so simple yet so universal and wise.
Among her many recommendations was the rule that one must write at least 300 words a day and that a first draft must be uninhibited, especially by perfectionism. She admits that using this technique will surely yield an often shitty first draft, but in the end, what you produce will be far and away better than a first draft born from oppression. I definitely can use this advice. I often begin my first drafts as if they were the final product. Occasionally, I’ll spend too much time on the first sentence that it results in me forgetting the subject of the second. Three hundred words a day will also be a little stretch for me. Some days I don’t write at all because I literally don’t get to sit down. I’m considering signing up for NANOWRIMO this year. It’s National Novel Writer’s Month (November) where you are encouraged to just get it out, the goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30. I want to do it even if I only get half that. Anyone want to do it with me?
The other thing this book told me was that I need to reposition my thinking about this writing stuff. I will probably never be a rich and famous writer, because most writers aren’t. So I better not be in this for the money or as a way to value myself. She says that you have to value yourself now, without the book deal or the multiple publications because publication doesn’t validate you or change your life. Lamott refers to the movie, Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican Bobsled team competing at the Olympics, the coach says, “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.” Lamott goes a step further when she suggests we tape this quote above our desk, “Being enough was going to have to be an inside job.” (p. 218-19)
On writing about real people, she suggests using all the good dirt but just changing enough detail so the person can’t be recognized. She says, “If you disguise this person carefully so that he cannot be recognized by the physical or professional facts of his life, you can use him in your work. And the best advice I can give you is to give him a teenie little penis so he will be less likely to come forth.” I wonder what the female equivalent would be? Suggestions?
One other thing that spoke to me was about voice. She says “…you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”( p. 226) A friend who read an article I wrote recently said that after reading the first paragraph, if she didn’t know me, she wouldn’t like me. So I changed it to be more likable. Was I wrong to do it? I’m not sure. I like my work better when it sounds like me, and not like some generic text book. But I guess every author wonders, will they like me, will they like my work. So should I write in a way I know they’ll like, or should I write in a way that I know I’ll like? Lamott seems to be saying stick to my guns. Write what feels real to me and hope that while some will be put off, others will connect.
Last week I had three articles accepted for publication. None of them paid! J But I’m proud just the same. My work will appear on Neighborhood-Kids.com and in the Whatcom Watch in May and in the Newsletter of the National Association of Mothers of Twins Clubs in June. My current goal is to have 12 articles published in local and regional publications. So far I’m up to six. Wish me luck.