That tweet from Kathryn Schulz set off my quest to find Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. If you’ve ever wondered how I find things, this is a perfect example.
And what a find this turned out to be. Lamott’s advice is down to earth, real, and void of any pretentiousness. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever come across on writing.
Getting started is often the hardest part of writing.
The very first thing I tell my new students … is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out. Year after year my students are bursting with stories to tell, and they start writing projects with excitement and maybe even joy— finally their voices will be heard, and they are going to get to devote themselves to this one thing they’ve longed to do since childhood. But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.
Everyone wants to know how to write. Routines are common. Maya Angelou likes to work in dirty hotel rooms. Hemingway wrote standing up. But more to the point perhaps is the advice of Philip Roth, who said every writer needs “the ability to sit still in the deeply uneventful business,” a comment that Lamott echoes.
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 begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, 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. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched– like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk.
Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive.
To be a good writer you need reverence and awe.
In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here?
Let’s think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of — please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.
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.
Drama is how the writer holds the attention of the reader through an arc.
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.
You need to be moving your characters forward, even if they only go slowly. Imagine moving them across a lily pond. If each lily pad is beautifully, carefully written, the reader will stay with you as you move toward the other side of the pond, needing only the barest of connections— such as rhythm, tone, or mood.
Commenting on Alice Adams’ short story formula of ABDCE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending, Lammott writes:
You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot— the drama, the actions, the tension— will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?
A formula can be a great way to get started. And it feels so great finally to dive into the water; maybe you splash around and flail for a while, but at least you’re in. Then you start doing whatever stroke you can remember how to do, and you get this scared feeling inside you— of how hard it is and how far there is to go— but still you’re in, and you’re afloat, and you’re moving.
The act of writing is its own reward.
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.
I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.
Lamott uses index cards to not only help her remember things in an otherwise busy world but as an aid to creativity.
I like to think that Henry James said his classic line, “A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,” while looking for his glasses, and that they were on top of his head. We have so much to remember these days. So we make all these lists, filled with hope that they will remind us of all the important things to do and buy and mail, all the important calls we need to make, all the ideas we have for short stories or articles. And yet by the time you get around to everything on any one list, you’re already behind on another. Still, I believe in lists and I believe in taking notes, and I believe in index cards for doing both.
Now, I have a number of writer friends who do not take notes out there in the world, who say it’s like not taking notes in class but listening instead. I think that if you have the kind of mind that retains important and creative thoughts— that is, if your mind still works— you’re very lucky and you should not be surprised if the rest of us do not want to be around you. I actually have one writer friend— whom I think I will probably be getting rid of soon— who said to me recently that if you don’t remember it when you get home, it probably wasn’t that important. And I felt eight years old again, with something important to say that had suddenly hopped down one of the rabbit holes in my mind, while an adult nearby was saying priggishly, “Well ! It must not have been very important then.”
So you have to decide how you feel about this. You may have a perfectly good memory and be able to remember three hours later what you came up with while walking on the mountain or waiting at the dentist’s. And then again, you may not.
My index-card life is not efficient or well organized. 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. If I’m working on a book or an article, and I’ve taken some notes on index cards, I keep them with that material, paperclip them to a page of rough draft where that idea or image might bring things to life. Or I stack them on my desk along with the pages for the particular chapter or article I’m working on, so I can look at them. When I get stuck or lost or the jungle drums start beating in my head, proclaiming that the jig is about to be up and I don’t know what I’m doing and the well has run dry, 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, which is, let’s face it, what writing finally boils down to.
She cautions that perfectionism is not only counter-productive but blocks playfulness and thus creativity.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping -stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground— you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.
Writing is about “learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on”
Now, if you ask me, what’s going on is that we’re all up to here in it, and probably the most important thing is that we not yell at one another. Otherwise we’d all just be barking away like Pekingese: “Ah! Stuck in the shit! And it’s your fault, you did this …” Writing involves seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein. But you can’t do that if you’re not respectful. If you look at people and just see sloppy clothes or rich clothes, you’re going to get them wrong.
And, in the end, writing makes you a better 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, and when you realize how artfully this has happened, you may actually put the book down for a moment and savor it, just taste it.
She concludes that “writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.”
They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life : they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s 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.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a must read.