Bird by Bird

November 2003

November 2003

I have just finished reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  I think I got a lot more out of it than when I first read it about ten years ago. She is such a gifted writer. I saw her in November of 2003 at which time I had her sign the book for me. But I didn’t really remember much about the book until I just now re-read it.

She starts out talking about growing up in a family of book-lovers; her father was a writer and gave her such advice as this – which I should definitely pay attention to: He says to “do it as you would do scales on the piano [and I certainly know what that is like, personally], do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.” How I could have used that advice at a young age. I still have trouble finishing things! Writing takes patience and perseverance. And those things take discipline. None of which have ever been strong points for me.

And she says that “publication is not all that it’s cracked up to be… but writing is,” – writing is its own reward. (But “never start a large writing project on a Monday in December” because you’ll be setting yourself up for failure.)

She talks of being given “the gift of loving to read with the same kind of passion with which we love nature,” and that writing brings much joy and much challenge, that it is “work and play together.” She speaks of “seeing the world through new eyes” and the feeling of catching a riding a wave – to feel better and more alive than at any other time. And these are all sentiments that I know to be true. And she, like other writers I have read, says that writing is about telling the truth. “We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.”

Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life, and Anne repeats that here. And she attests to the fact that it can feel very overwhelming to try to sort out and make sense of all that “material” inside us. But, “you try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your subconscious to kick in for you creatively.”

She says that if one of your heart’s deepest longings is to write, then there are ways to get your work done and she goes on to list those ways (“short assignments and shitty first drafts.”).

I like where she says that “very few writers really know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.” Just get it down on paper (where have we heard that before?) and quotes Vonnegut who said “when I write I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” I love it. LOL

She goes on to talk about characters and how to make sure they are “likable;” and that one should mostly let the characters do what they will. I have experienced this actually: I know what it’s like to have characters gain a life of their own and take off. It is very cool.

Then she talks about plot. I was happy to read what she said about worrying about the characters instead of the plot; that the plot comes through relationships. She says you can have a sort of temporary destination in mind, but that it will likely change before the end of it. And that makes sense too.

Just like art, writing is also about seeing, seeing into the truth of things, the bare bones of what things are. It requires paying attention, being clear. She says, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” (Thus the allure of the ADHD meds.) And, “To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal, but you have to care.” “You get your confidence and intuition by trusting yourself” and “Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.” (And this is one of the drawbacks to those ADHD meds.)

I liked her idea about using index cards all the time to jot down any and all things and perceptions as they arrive so much that I went out and bought a whole big stack of different colored index cards. I have not, of course, opened them yet. And Anne Lamott‘s final thoughts were about asking for help when needed – people can be a wealth of needful information – and to believe thoroughly in yourself.

I highlighted so many things in this book – I just loved everything about it. Lots of good advice, lots of straight-on Truth. And it’s good that I am gleaning all of this information and these insights from good writers, but when it comes down to it, I just need to sit down and WRITE.

I have read several of Anne Lamott’s books over the years and enjoyed them all; she is a gem of a writer and someone whom I would love to actually know personally – which is not really that far-fetched in light of the fact that she lives here – but still, yes, not a real possibility. LOL

But perhaps someday my paths will cross those of other writers; perhaps even accomplished, successful writers. You just never know.

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