Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott’s father taught prisoners at San Quentin, and herself, how to write. “But he taught me too,” she writes. “Mostly be example…But while he helped the prisoners and me to discover that we had a lot of feelings and observations and memories and dreams and (God knows) opinions we wanted to share, we all ended up just the tiniest bit resentful when we found the one fly in the ointment: that at some point we had to actually sit down and write.”

And that’s the most important thing about writing. You can read all the books about the craft you wanted, write down all the notes and plots and storylines you want, but unless you sit down in a chair and write word after word after word, you won’t be successful.

Lamott’s dad: “This is the great tragedy of California, for a life orientated to leisure is in the end a life oriented to death–the greatest leisure of life.”

Lamott: “I read more than other kids; I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge.

Publication is not all that great. It will not solve all of your problems.

“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…The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

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.

Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram–it’s the eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar. What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you’ll love, you’ll get better.

‘But how?’ my students ask. “How do you actually do it?”

You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You look at the cieling, and over at the clock, yawn and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind–a scene, a locale, a character, whatever–and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. >

“If I sit there long enough, something will happen.”

“’E.L. Doctorow once said 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.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

When Lamott was a child, and her older, then then year old brother had a report on birs due the next day that he’d have three months to write, yet hasn’t started, was in tears at the kitchen table, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.” Then, her father sat down and with his arm around his young boy said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

She keeps telling this story because it gives others hope, and hope, she quotes Chesterton, “is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate.”

Write shitty first drafts. “The only way I can get anything written is to write really, really shitty first drafts…Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts…A friend of mine says the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up.

“One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, ‘It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do–you can either type of kill yourself.’”

A great way to write: take short assignments and then produce really shitty first drafts of those assignments.

On characters:

  • “As soon as you start protecting your characters from the ramifications of their less-than-lofty behavior, your story will start to feel flat and pointless, just like in real life.”
  • “One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a new way that pages of description can’t. How would your main characters describe their current circumstances to a close friend, before and then after a few drinks?”
  • Have a great narrator! That was Ethan Canin’s advice to Lamott. She explains, “If your narrator is someone whose take on things fascinates you, it isn’t really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time…Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal.”

On plot:

  • Plot grows out of character. Don’t force your characters into a plot. Let the plot develop based on what all of the different characters do.
  • “For the climax, there must be a killing or a healing or a domination. It can be a real killing, a murder, or it can be a killing of the spirit, or of something terrible inside one’s soul, or it can be a killing of a deadness within, after which the person becomes alive again.”
  • Alice Adams uses the ABCDE formula when writing short stories. Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending.
  • If you’re stuck, write a plot treatment. After going through rounds and rounds of edits with her editor, Lamott still didn’t have a working book. So her editor said, “Listen. I want you to write that book you just described to me. You haven’t done it here. Go off somewhere and write me a treatment, a plot treatment. Tell me chapter by chapter what you just told me in the last half hour…”

On Dialogue:

  • “You’re not reproducing actual speech–you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words.”
  • “If you’re a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days–listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. You take home all you’ve taken in, all that you’ve overheard, and turn it into gold.
  • You must be able to identify a character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. “And they should all not sound like you.”
  • “Good dialogue gives us the sense that we are eavesdropping, that the author is not getting in the way. Thus good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is not said.”
  • “You want to avoid at all costs drawing your characters on those that already exist in other works of fiction. You must learn about people from people, not from what you read. Your reading should *confirm* what you’ve observed in the world.”

As a writer, you don’t ever really know when you’re done with writing something. When you’ve toiled and edited and rewritten and agonized over it and when the person who reads your work says “Not bad” then it’s done. “Writing and editing is like putting an octopus to bed.” “If you know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that it’s the very best you can do for now–well? I think this means that you are done.”

“Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.”

“If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing, that you lose interest or faith in them along the way, it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately.”

“If your deepest beliefs drive your writing, they will not only keep your work from being contrived but will help you discover what drives your characters.”

“To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.”

“Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it, however you can, and you will be richly rewarded.”

“There’s an old Mel Brooks routine, on the flip side of the “2,000 year old man” where the psychiatrist tells his patient, “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” It means of course, that when you don’t know what to do, when you don’t know whether your character would do this or that, you get quiet and try to hear that still small voice inside.”

“My friend Terry says that when you need to make a decision, in your work or otherwise, and you don’t know what to do, just do one thing or the other, because the worst that can happen is that you will have made a terrible mistake…If you don’t know which way to go, keep it simple. Listen to your broccoli. Maybe it will know what to do. Then, if you’ve worked in good faith for a couple of hours but cannot hear it today, have some lunch.”

“A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.” – Henry James

“Hostile, aggressive students insist on asking what I do with all my index cards. And all I can say is that I have them, I took notes on them, and the act of having written something down gives me a fifty-fifty shot at having it filed away now in my memory.”

“When I get stuck or lost…I’ll look through my index cards. I try to see if there’s a short assignment on any of them that will get me writing again, give me a small sense of confidence, help me put down one damn word after another.”

Writing groups are good, but they require people to respond to their work as honestly as possible but without being “abusive or diminishing…You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.”

“When you don’t know what else to do, when you’re really stuck and filled with despair and self-loathing and boredom, but you can’t just leave your work alone for a while and wait, you might try telling part of your history–part of a character’s history–in the form of a letter. The letter’s informality just might free you form the tyranny of perfectionism.”

“Here’s the thing, though. I no longer think of it as block. I think that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door. The word *block* suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.”

Problems of output are problems of input.

“The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, to alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given–that you are not in a productive creative period–you free yourself to being filling up again. I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written…just for the hell of it, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day. Then, on bad days and weeks, let things go at that.”

When young writers emulate famous ones who came before, they’re getting that style on loan until they can develop and find the thing they’re really after: their own voice.

“You wouldn’t be a writer if reading hadn’t enriched your soul more than other pursuits.”

“I tell you, if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy.”

But there is something good that comes from publication. “Publication is the acknowledgment from the community that you did you writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose…But eventually you have to sit down like every other writer and face the blank page.”

“Sometime later you’ll find yourself at work on, maybe really into, another book, and once again you figure out that the real payoff is the writing itself, that a day when you have gotten your work done is a good day, that total dedication is the point.”

You have to love the work. Focus on effort, not results.

Coach to Cool Runnings team: “if you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.”

If you’re not enough before the publication, the reward, or the recognition, you won’t be enough with it either.”

When Lamott went to see a pastor because she was “up and down, scattered, high, withdrawing, lost, and in the midst of it all trying to find some elusive sense of serenity,” he told her, “The world can’t give you that serenity. The world can’t give us peace. We can only find it in our hearts.”

“I hate that,” Lamott replied.

“I know,” he said. “But the good news is that by the same token, the world can’t take it away.”

“[My students] will not get big houses and stuff, though many of them want these things more than anything else. They don’t believe that if they got these things they’d probably end up even more mentally ill and full of stress and self-doubt than they already are…When I suggest, however, that devotion and commitment will be their own reward, that in dedication to their craft they will find solace and direction and wisdom and truth and pride, they at first look at me with great hostility. You might think that I had just offered them membership in my embroidery club. They are angry people. This is why they write.”

“Becoming a writer can also profoundly change your life as a reader. One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer’s eyes. You focus in a new way. You study how someone portrays his or her version of things in a way that is new and bold and original. You notice how a writer paints in a mesmerizing character or era for you, without your having the sense of being given a whole lot of information, you may actually put the book down for a moment and savor it, just taste it.”

When you’ve finished a book, you’ve finished a book! It doesn’t matter how it sells or who reads it. You’ve gone and done it. Day after day you wrote and finished a book.

Writing is like “singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”


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