Word by Word

ANNE LAMOTT – Bird by Bird

“I worry that Jesus drinks himself to sleep when he hears me talk like this.”

Much can be read from this line that comes from the book on writing and life advice by Anne Lamott.

1: Her mention of Jesus makes one think that she is religiously-inclined, that it is a significant part of her life, or that it plays a pivotal role in her daily decisions. From what I have read, that would be correct.

2: The fact that Jesus himself would become an alcoholic based on the things she says, kind of paints the picture of an insanely articulate yet unhinged, hilarious writer whose bark is worse than her bite, and who manages to make the darkest of themes, like even death, humorous.

From what I have read, that would also be correct.

Lamott has a wicked sense of humour. From the outset, I could tell that I would like her. Her witty, sharp, insightful remarks and views on the world, ability to poke fun at herself and allow us to see and hear all her very real insecurities and jealousies about being a human, and about being a writer, made me immediately sympathetic to her story. She’s honest and real about the struggles in a writer’s world, and let’s face it, trying to get into it in the first place, yet despite her stark frankness in the matter, suggesting that only a small number get to go on Letterman, she has put together this book in an effort to encourage and help aspiring writers, as she has often done in her writing workshops.

“The best thing about being an artist, instead of a madman or someone who writes letters to the editor, is that you get to engage in satisfying work. Even if you never publish your work, you have something important to pour yourself into.”

This book made me laugh, and it made me cry. It gave me some good hard advice, as well as some awesome little snippets and ideas on what I can do in my writing life to just generally be better at it.

So let’s begin Anne’s writing class. (I usually call writers by their surnames in my reviews but after reading this book I feel like I know her so well).

SET THE MOOD

“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it…”

I got quite a few good tips from Anne on ways to improve my writing environment. Firstly, it seems simple, but using some kind of external trigger, like a candle, and the act of lighting it, when done repeatedly over time it can serve as a kind of switch for your writing conscious to kick in. This excited me because for my birthday I got given this beautiful candle in a glass jar, and the wick actually crackles as it burns (I actually picked the candle for myself and my parents paid, but same thing). As if I didn’t need further reason to get it, the lady behind the counter said “when the house is quiet, light it and listen to it crackle as you read a book.”

Um, what about write a book? God if she knew. So that will be my thing, the candle, in particular this most awesome-nest of awesome candles, the wicker-crackling candle.

And speaking of the conscious mind. The rational mind is probably our worst enemy. Second guessing ourselves, reading over what we’ve written, trying too hard, sticking to plans and not letting things flow – this all obstructs the natural story-telling and writing process. She says that characters are created in our unconscious mind, the area in which we have no control over, so it would come to reason that we should relax a little, try to listen to our intuition more, and just let the unconscious do its thing. She uses the metaphor of broccoli for her intuition, but whatever ‘voice’ it is that you can’t control within, as long as it works for you. I love the metaphor and vision of the butterfly, and it has significance for me on many levels, and with its random yet gentle fluttering, I’ve decided to watch this creature in my mind’s eye and follow where it leads me. Just as a green vegetable will work for Anne, a transformative insect will work for me.

Preparation-wise, Anne has index cards placed pretty much all over the place at her house, in her car, she even takes them with her on walks in case an idea, thought or inspiration strikes her. I have to say, when I’ve had a great thought and not had the necessary pen/paper/mobile to capture it, I whole-heartedly agree with Anne when she says:

“That is one of the worst feelings I can think of, to have had a wonderful moment or insight or vision or phrase, to know you had it, and then to lose it.”

There’s nothing wrong with needing a prompt to remember things. Being a mother herself, she offers a great insight into one reason you may need these cards in your life, something that despite my uber-organisation, I can totally relate with:

“When a child comes out of your body, it arrives with about a fifth of your brain clutched in its little hand, like those babies born clutching IUDs.”

There will be bad days. You will have writers block, which she says is less about being ‘stuck,’ and more about ‘filling up again.’ She tells her students to try to write at least a page of something, anything, dreams or streams of consciousness or memories, every day, and that on bad days to try and do this just to keep their fingers from becoming arthritic. And in the event of being ‘empty,’ to go out and fill up again.

“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.”

HOW TO WRITE

E.L. Doctorow once said “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” It was interesting to find this quote in Lamott’s book, because I had just finished reading Loon Lake before getting Bird by Bird, and it was in fact this precise Doctorow quote, reading it literally before his death, that rang very true for me.

I didn’t do a whole lot of research, or any writer’s workshops, or join any online writing groups when I first started on my book. I just went into it, with a handful of characters, some strong themes, and a round-a-bout destination in mind. I knew A, I knew somewhere E was going to come in, but then I didn’t know anything in between, just a rough Y and a hazy Z. It’s always comforting when you read that someone you aspire to, such as a successful writer, does the same thing you do, or confirms something you’ve always thought to be true. I never really thought of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to write, I think we all just do what works for us, but this above metaphor that applies not just to writing, but to life, rang so true to me. Because from my A, B C and D sprang forward, and just by writing scene by scene, character by character, a whole story formed, and I surprised myself on multiple occasions.

You don’t need to see the path to your destination, nor even see your destination at all. Anne talks about ‘Short Assignments,’ and when you struggle in your writing to just think of getting one memory, one scene, one exchange out in front of you, enough that would fill up a one-inch frame. Focusing on one thing at a time is far less overwhelming than worrying about how your protagonist is going to confront the bad guy three chapters away.

“Your plot will fall into place as, one day at a time, you listen to your characters carefully, and watch them move around doing and saying things and bumping into each other.”

Writing can be a very difficult experience, something she admits for herself and for most writers she knows. Getting by is to write a shitty first draft. In this stage anything goes, even phrases like:

“Well so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?”

You just need to get anything down, no matter what it is. Her friend said:

“the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up….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.”

 “Vonnegut said, ‘When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.’”

This is so comforting.

You can even liken your writing to your dreams – the way one absurd scene just flows into another, so too must your writing be “vivid and continuous.” In discovering plot, Anne says her characters know where they are going, she just needs to stay with them long enough. She needs to care for them, polish them, and then suddenly they will show her the way. Another way to think of it is this:

“they need me to write it down for them because their handwriting is so bad.”

What about me then? I need my characters to do everything for me because my handwriting beats that of a doctors!

In writing, you need to revoke all control you have. You may be focusing on the fence, but the yellow sparkling flower in the corner of your mind-frame starts to sparkle and all of a sudden, it’s stolen the show. You must explore that.

“If you stop trying to control your mind so much, you’ll have intuitive hunches about what this or that character is all about. It is hard to stop controlling, but you can do it.”

Anne says that when she starts writing she wants to fill the page with witty insights so that the world will see how smart she is. Whoops. Where I fall into step with the favourable Doctorow quote, so too do I have to begrudgingly agree that I sing along with this writing flaw. But as you write, you want your characters to act out the drama of humankind, which doesn’t include your witty and ground-breaking life insights.

“…the purpose of most great writing seems to be to reveal in an ethical light who we are.”

FUNNY STORIES

Anne made me LOL so hard, that in my re-reading of notes I was still laughing out loud. Oh geez.

The two below cases in point I think really paint a great picture of the dual character-traits she encompasses. Take the story of when readers were surprised to hear that she didn’t love to garden like one of the characters in her book, that she had in fact been researching it heavily and ‘winging’ it instead:

“’You don’t love to garden?’ they’d ask incredulously, and I’d shake my head and not mention that what I love are cut flowers, because this sounds so violent and decadent, like when Salvador Dali said his favourite animal was fillet of sole.”

Oh my fucking lord. I love it.

(I was on a swearing frenzy following Loon Lake, so screw it let’s go).

(Let’s not make much of the fact that one quote on my calendar once said ‘Swearing exposes weakness not strength.’)

A second moment, where she is talking about paying attention to the world around you and using religious metaphors in doing so, displays the heavy theme of God in her life, while also reminding us that she doesn’t give a shit:

“There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation. Or maybe you are not predisposed to see the world sacramentally, to see everything as an outward and visible sign of inward, invisible grace. This does not mean that you are worthless Philistine scum.”

Her chapter on jealousy is refreshing. If a writing friend of hers is successful with writing, sometimes she wants –

“for him to wake up one morning with a pain in his prostate, because I don’t care how rich and successful someone is, if you wake up having to call your doctor and ask for a finger massage, it’s going to be a long day.”

These images are so clear and paint such a humorous picture, and the fact that she does it all, making it appear so effortless, makes you realise how great of a writer she really is.

I can re-type countless funny moments and stories of hers, but I just need to do one more, I promise. I love the following mental picture. When researching for the name of the ‘wire thing’ used for wines, she called a winery to try and found out its proper name. The receptionist there didn’t know the name of it either so she transferred her to:

“a two-thousand year old monk. Or at least this is how he sounded, faint, reedy, out of breath, like Noah after a brisk walk.

And he was so glad I’d called. He actually said so, and he sounded like he was. I have secretly believed ever since that he had somehow stayed alive just long enough to be there for my phone call, and that after he answered my question, he hung up, smiled, and keeled over.”

Oh God. I love it!

Okay, back to the serious writing stuff (clears throat). Writing can be hard (duh Fred). Even for published professionals such as herself, there is still a lot of staring at clocks, staring at blank screens, and yawning. Making phone calls and distracting oneself with other tasks other than writing, is very normal. Sometimes voices would continuously harp at her, and she’s use a tactic a hypnotist once suggested to her, to imagine all the voices as mice, and to one by one drop them into a jar, turn the volume on the jar up and then down, and watch them claw at her as she then muted them. It’s interesting she mentioned this, since I have a kind of different picture, just something I use for when someone I can’t stand is driving me insane in my head. I imagine them as a ball, and with a baseball bat (for some reason it’s baseball, maybe because the ball appears to go very far during that game) I strike it so hard and so out of view that they are no longer seen, or heard.

Perhaps slightly violent, but it does the trick. You can use that for yourself, tell me how you go.

Anne talks of the publishing fantasy, and how it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. She mentions the early draft process, and when she gets her friends to initially provide her feedback on her work. When she doesn’t hear from them by the next day, she starts to think –

“… about all the things I don’t like about either of them, how much in fact I hate them both, how it is no wonder neither of them has many friends.”

When she gets to sending her writing to her editor and agent, her thoughts are equally as insane and hilarious, if not more so. She convinces herself that they are in cahoots, laughing their arses off over her book, now proclaimed the worst book ever written.

“At one point your editor is laughing so hard that she has to take some digitalis, and your agent ruptures a blood vessel in his throat.”

But it doesn’t stop there. On the date of publication, the blow to the ego comes when your phone ISN’T ringing off the hook, and the 5 people that turn up at your book signings, as well as the review that likens your book to dog poo, just makes it all seem not worth it. Additionally, dealing with people who ask “have you written anything I might have heard of?” while others claim they read everything and yet do not know your name, leaves little to be desired in the world of publication.

She makes the process sound quite shit. She is a great writer after all.

SAD STORIES

Just as I laughed, so too did I cry.

The sad moments made me tear up, quite bad, punching me hard in the heart. Perhaps some of the saddest material came in her section on ‘Letters,’ where she suggested that if you’re stuck in your writing, write an informal letter to someone you know. This has not only been a beautiful present to the person in question in her own life, but has captured a moment of time that will never be forgotten.

The three letters she speaks of are the ones she wrote to her Dad, her best friend, and the couple of a boy who passed. The first two ended up being published books, with both her Dad and best friend getting to read her book dedicated to them, before they passed. It was especially hard for me to read the part of her Dad dying, since I have someone in the immediate family who died from the same thing that struck her Dad. It was shocking, and frightening, to say the least. The fact that she got to write something for her Dad and he read it, and it got published, is heartbreakingly bittersweet.

I was almost crying my eyes out at her third example of an informal letter. A couple she knew had lost their son at 5 months of age. He had been called ‘Cloud Boy’ by his mother’s friends: because he had been resuscitated at birth, he was neither here, nor there. She wrote a piece about him and it was broadcast on radio, and the fact that I had earlier been very cranky with baby girl, just broke my heart. My note on this read:

‘Makes me feel guilty for getting upset earlier at baby girl –big hug later :)’

Page 205, has quite frankly the best story of giving, EVER. It is so painfully moving and inspiring, that I cannot will myself to re-tell it here, in fear of butchering it to death. So just do yourself a favour and get the book and read the damn thing, especially page 205.

Finally, the following poem is one she re-tells, as having thought of it in regards to a student of hers who wasn’t doing so well in his writing. Its fragility is touching.

“Above me, wind does its best

to blow leaves off

the aspen tree a month too soon.

No use wind. All you succeed

in doing is making music, the noise

of failure growing beautiful.”

LIFE

The title of Anne’s book Bird by Bird comes from one of the best stories, in my opinion, to come out of the book (apart from page 205). It is so relevant to life, that I’ve found myself quoting and muttering it ever since I finished reading it.

Anne tells of the story of when her older brother had a report due on birds the next day, which he had had 3 months to write. Close to tears, surrounded by bird info, and overwhelmed by the hugeness of the task, his Dad had put his arm around him and said “Bird by bird buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Now I find that I’ll be doing something and I just go ‘bird by bird.’ Some passer-by may think it means I’m collecting the aviary kind, but the significance is just so great, I can’t help but to say it out loud.

She discusses libel, which is one of the most memorable and humorous lessons in the book. If you must make someone horrible from your life a character in one of your books (God help me, I threaten every twerp I meet in my mind with ‘oh you wait ‘til I make the world hate you in my novels, mwa ha ha!’) change all their traits so they can’t sue you, and make them impossible to trace and identify from the people in their life… and of course give them a little penis so they won’t come forward even if they’re suss on you.

It’s Okay. Anne says this every so often, and always with a capital ‘O.’ There is some significance, and I’ve been trying to work out what… suggesting that Okay is a state of being, holding much importance, it all goes back to being alright…. You got me, I’m not sure. But just remember all you writers out there, it will all be Okay.

She talks about all the great things about being a writer, which hey, we all knew already, right? (And if you didn’t, what kind of masochist are you?) Even though she says that publishing is in fact, a fantasy, telling her students that in writing “… devotion and commitment will be their own reward,” she also says:

“But the fact of publication is the acknowledgement from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose.”

Writers “get to stay home and still be public.”

Something I’ve always believed: you get the best of both worlds. I did come to question myself, as I have on so many occasions: why do I do it? Why write? Why do I feel the pull, the need, the obsessive urge to get everything down on paper? I journal passionately, having captured my entire pregnancy, the first year of baby girl’s life, and I have since continued, picking up from where I left off years ago and beginning to journal all of my life again.

There are many reasons. First, so we are not lost. One day we will die, and all that will remain of Hubbie and I, which our children will be able to hold onto, are photos, memories, and this. My journals. My journals will give them a view into our worlds like no one else can. Despite our absence, our stories that we’ve passed on to them, and my words, will still be alive.

This is something that I find so magical. That I can be reading ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ written by Shakespeare, and laughing out loud over the lines he wrote hundreds of years ago. That is amazing, that is inspiring, that kind of life-transcendence, for a story to be living and making people feel long after you’re gone.

Of course, I love to write. It is almost an obsessive urge in me, where I need to get stuff down. Additionally, I have a tremendous story in me that just needs to be told. I believe so whole-heartedly that it will resonate with people out there, that I simply must do whatever it takes to get it heard. I will try.

I don’t always love to write. But I always have to do it.

“But the tradition of artists will continue no matter what form the society takes. And this is another reason to write: people need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion…”

The world will always need writers. Stories have existed from the beginning of time, and will always be a necessity. You don’t have to write just for yourself: “Risk freeing someone else.” Make someone else’s day, help someone going through the troubles in their life, by telling them your story.

One of the greatest things her father taught her was to pay attention. And that in itself is beautiful. Going somewhere with a sense of purpose, noting things down, whether because you’re going to review it later (a restaurant you’ve been to, or a book you’re reading) or simply to capture the details for a written piece, either fictional or personal.

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.”

In closing, this is a tremendously inspiring and informative book, one all writers should read, published or not. I’m not sure whether it is better than Stephen King’s ‘On Writing:” that I would need to read again, since his I read during my writing book process, and Anne’s one came much later in the game. But both are equally entertaining in their own way, and really, we should be grabbing ALL the advice that successful writers send out to us, and not question it! Take it, absorb it, memorise it, and then with your arms full run for the hills.

I want you all to take these two quotes I present from Anne’s book, and use it to fuel your story, your passion, and your purpose.

“All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.”

“Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.”

And now run.

Please let me know your thoughts on Bird by Bird in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 😊

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