Writing Books: Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s marvelous Bird by Bird is aptly subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and Life and, truth be told, I lean on it more for life than writing.

Wise & warm

Or so I thought until I realised the way her words and ideas, embedded by repeated reading, goad me to greater effort and courage. One-inch frames, KFKD, calling around. I don’t want to spoil the delights of reading her for the first time, but I can’t resist giving a little taster.

Lamott is a Christian (I hope she’s okay with being described like that. A devout Baptist recently chided me for using the word. Apparently it has been “devalued” and the preferred nomenclature is “Christ-follower”. Not knowing Ms Lamott’s preference I’ve opted for the traditional designation.) Thus two of my top books-about-writing were written by people with an active religious belief. Writing is an act of faith, I guess.

Here’s a sample of her astute, quotable, compassionate wisdom on writing and life.

Short Assignments

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop. First I try to breathe, because I’m either sitting there panting like a lapdog or I’m unintentionally making slow asthmatic death rattles. So I just sit there for a minute, breathing slowly, quietly…. I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. pp. 17-18

writing-writers-books-travel-inspiration-sunset-ibiza
Sunset, Ibiza

Perfectionism

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). p. 28

The Moral Point of View

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. Even someone as grim and unsentimental as Samuel Beckett, with his lunatics in garbage cans or up to their necks in sand, whose lives consist of pawing through the contents of their purses, stopping to marvel at each item, gives us great insight into what is true, into what helps. He gets it right — that we’re born astride the grave and that this planet can feel as cold and uninhabitable as the moon — and he knows how to make it funny. He smiles an oblique and private smile at us, the most delicious smile of all, and this changes how we look at life. A few small things seem suddenly clear, things to which we can cling, and this makes us feel like part of the solution. p. 107

writing-writers-inspiration-books-travel-ibiza
Es Cavallet, Ibiza

Radio Station KFKD

If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and know and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on. p. 116

Jealousy

My therapist said that jealousy is a secondary emotion, that it is born out of feeling excluded and deprived, and that if I worked on those age-old feelings, I would probably break through the jealousy. I tried to get her to give me a prescription for Prozac, but she said that this other writer was in my life to help me heal my past. She said this writer had helped bring up a lifetime’s worth of feeling that other families were happier than ours, that other families had some owner’s manual to go by. She said it was once again that business of comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. She said to go ahead and feel the feelings. I did. They felt like shit. p. 126

writing-books-writers-inspiration-travel-ibiza
Sunset, San Carlos, Ibiza

Writer’s Block

The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, 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 begin filling up again. I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing — just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, 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. p. 178

coffee-writing-books-writers-travel
Writer’s friend

Finding Your Voice

The truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own. Sometimes wearing someone else’s style is very comforting, warm and pretty and bright, and it can loosen you up, tune you into the joys of language and rhythm and concern. But what you say wil lbe an abstraction because it will not have sprung from direct experience: when you try to capture the truth of your experience in some other person’s voice or on that person’s terms, you are removing yourself one step further from what you have seen and what you know.

…You can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We dont have uch truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in — then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.    pp. 199-201

Buy Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life on Amazon

Stax Records, Memphis

Driving south on E McLemore I see a church on almost every block. What’s God up to in this corner of Memphis? Houses not dedicated to worship of the Almighty slump among empty lots: paint peeling, porch rails crumpled, concrete warping beneath the wheels of clapped-out cars.

stax-records-museum-american-soul-music-memphis-tennessee-travel
Stax, 926 E McLemore, Memphis Tennessee

It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the bright, solid lines of Stax Records. Properly, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a modern reconstruction of the iconic studio torn down in 1989 after a church failed to find a use for the shell.

If I believed in God, which I don’t, that would make me doubt. A righteous, omnipotent being wouldn’t let the finest thing on E McLemore vanish in dust. God would take better care.

Stax Records is to soul what Sun Records is to rock’n’roll. Stax was Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Booker T. and the M.G.s, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor.

booker-t-the-mgs-memphis-music-stax-soul-records
Booker T & the M.G.’s

Richard Pryor recorded ‘That Nigger’s Crazy’ at Stax. Isaac Hayes recorded the ‘Theme from Shaft which won an Oscar and a Grammy. Otis Redding recorded ‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’ days before his private plane crashed into a freezing lake, killing him and four teenage members of the Bar-Kays.

Inside, Stax is clean and calm. A short film tells the Stax story. How it was founded by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (Stewart + Axton = Stax), both White. How it became a magnet for Black musicians, many of them kids from un-integrated local schools. How an alchemy of music and passion kept the place not just afloat but aloft. How Stax introduced Europe to soul and used music to bring unity to post-Watts Riots South Central LA.

Stax Records took virtually its whole roster into the South Central in 1972 for an epic concert called Wattstax. It was a joyous, defiant celebration of Black pride and unity.

I froze in front of the Wattstax display. I knew that voice: “This is a beautiful day. It is a new day.”

The next words were unfamiliar, as was the lack of piano chords beneath the voice, which rose and rose. “It is a day of Black awareness. It is a day of Black people taking care of Black people’s business.”

Jesse Jackson continued with words that, once again, reverberated with my memory: “Today we are together…. on this program you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music.”

I know Jackson’s soul-stirring speech as the intro to Primal Scream’s acid house masterpiece ‘Come Together’. But never, in the 15 years I’ve loved that record did I realise the Scottish ravers (or, more likely, their genius producer Andrew Weatherall) cribbed the best part of ‘Come Together’ from Stax Records.

rev-jesse-jackson-stax-records-soul-music-memphis-civil-rights.jpg
Jesse Jackson ‘I Am Somebody’

Rev Jesse Jackson’s face shines from an LP on a wall of record covers. I am somebody.

Across the street from the Stax parking lot, two teenage boys lark around, holding trombones. On the pavement in front a handful of workmen stretch canvas over a frame, getting ready for a fundraiser. On the marquee: Staxtacular, February 11.

Memphis writer Robert Gordon captures Stax’s rise and fall in articulate, beautiful, passionate detail in Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.

He tells of the brilliance. The betrayals. The triumphs. The catastrophes. The stories of people who made some of America’s finest music then, largely, slipped through the cracks of our cultural history.

stax-records-soul-music-memphis-tennessee-travel
Stax Records Museum of American Soul Music

Leaving Stax we drove past Royal Studios, erstwhile home of Hi Records. The small brick building with a bright mural painted over the door is the only thing in blocks that looks like it wouldn’t sway in a strong breeze. There’s no place to buy food in this neighbourhood apart from a couple of “grocery” stores with heavily barred windows and blistered paint. The houses look abandoned. Windows boarded, hemmed with weeds, screen doors hanging from a single hinge. The only business we pass is an AT&T outpost that looks like a prison, complete with razor-wire topped fences. Churches, though, have gleaming white porticoes and landscaping.

Subtly, lines soften as we head towards Midtown. Grass is greener. Blighted buildings give way to petrol stations to, finally, the accustomed restaurants, shops and offices.

I don’t know how to process the injustice, the beauty, the senseless repetition of tragic histories. Does anyone figure it out?

stax-records-memphis-soul-music-travel-songs
Stax Records catalogue

“Sorrow everywhere,” Jack Gilbert wrote. “Slaughter everywhere.

If babies are not dying someplace they are dying somewhere else.

With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives, because that’s what God wants.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Digital Detox

Somewhere along the way, my phone got out of hand.
Rather, it was never out of my hand.

huwei
So, so addictive

Alarm chimes. Hand goes to phone. Depending on the latest incoming message a cobalt or green-means-go light flashes from the top right corner of my phone, a tiny beacon. Before I’m even awake my fingers are stubbing out the unlock code, skimming across the screen; my half-shut eyes are skimming Guardian headlines or reading messages.

At some point I roll out of bed and head downstairs to start coffee, phone firmly in hand. While the kettle boils I’m scanning email or Tweeting. The cat, my partner, and my mental health are all forgotten in an urgent need to catch up on Instagram.

Friday night, Chris and I were sitting side by side. I was absorbed in my phone. He said something. I wasn’t listening. As I struggled to tune in to reality, it occurred to me what a waste it to substitute a smartphone for human interaction. What was I going to miss? Another blast of bad news, a Gap e-flyer, a handful of photos by people I’ve never met and probably never will. In other words, nothing. Nothing of value, nothing of note, nothing that substitutes for time spent with someone I love.

So I turned my phone off and said: “I’m having a break.”

epictetus-philosophy-stoic-greek-classical-books
Stoic philosophy

Saturday morning, I woke up before Chris. With my phone switched off, I reached for my Kindle and read a couple of chapters before coffee. Without the distraction of my phone, I had time to meditate for a few minutes. I read a chapter of Epictetus and mused on it.

We went for a long walk, looping through Overton Park and back to the house through the Evergreen Historic District. In the afternoon we did errands and talked. Came home, had a glass of rose and discussed plans for the coming months.

There were a few times I missed my phone: in the car, sans Spotify; needing to look up an address; wanting to look in an online shop. Those moments brought home to me how much I rely on my phone for distraction. Whenever there is a lull, I reach for it. Sometimes the pretext is information or function, but none of it is urgent. The address was for a letter that wouldn’t post until Monday anyway, the online shopping was (needless to say) not that important. And guess what, FM radio still exists.

We made Thai green curry for dinner. I simmered sweet potato, onion, red pepper, courgette and cherry tomatoes in a rich coconut milk sauce. Chris blacked Indian aubergines beneath the grill, peeling the charred skin at the last minute and adding the smoky flesh to the vegetables along with fistfuls of spinach and a handful of fresh basil leaves. We cooked a big pot of basmati rice, drank more rose. With our phones out of sight and mind, we concentrated on the food and conversation.

radical-compassion-buddhist-shambhala-kindle-free
Buddhist wisdom

Chris wanted to read after dinner. I’d finished my book so started the only other “new” book on my Kindle, Radical Compassion — a collection of essays by contemporary Buddhists. Without the lure of my phone, I concentrated more; thought more about what I was reading.

There was even time, in the midst of everything else, to write for a while.

Before going to bed, I looked at my phone. Should I turn it on to set the alarm for morning? It was strange to see it lying on the night stand, reduced to its real dimensions, just a slab of black plastic. The flicker of temptation passed. My phone is a significant part of my routine, a valuable accessory, but it’s not essential.

Communication is essential. Closeness. Caring. Connection. All these things the phone can facilitate. It can also be an attention black hole. It was good to take a day off and remind myself what’s important and where things stand.

If you don’t hear from me on a Saturday don’t worry, it’s digital detox day.

 

 

 

Writing Down The Bones

I promised you must-read writing books. Let’s start with Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It has been a beacon to scribes and wannabes for over 30 years. I discovered it late and have compensated by reading it two or three times a year since.

Goldberg’s fundamental principle is just write. If you want to be a writer, write. That’s been sound advice since Epictetus dished it a couple of thousand years ago. Goldberg picks up the Stoic philosopher’s thread with brief, punchy chapters that are so elegantly written as to make writing seem infinitely appealing, even when she’s telling you how hard it is.

My feeble descriptive capacity does Natalie no justice so, with respect, I’ll let a few snippets speak for themselves.

Writing Down The Bones

“It is important to have a way worked out to begin your writing; otherwise, washing the dishes becomes the most important thing on earth — anything that will divert you from writing. Finally, one just has to shut up, sit down, and write. That is painful.” p26

“Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth.” p47

“Be specific. Don’t say “fruit.” Tell what kind of fruit — “It is a pomegranate.” Give things the dignity of their names.” p77

dsc02087
Sunrise, Ibiza

“Another friend told me about her father who left the family suddenly when she was twelve and became a born-again Christian and embezzled money from the churches of three states. It was her personal tragedy. I told her it was a great story. Her face lit up. She realized she could transform her life in a new way — as material for writing.” p85

“Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you  have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of beginning. Probably that’s why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary. We are touching down onto something real.” p112

dsc02167
Penn campus, West Philadelphia

“Continue under all circumstances. Don’t be rigid, though. If one day you have to take your kids to the dentist when it is your time to write, write in the dentist’s office or don’t write. Just stay in touch underneath with your commitment for this wild, silly, and wonderful writing practice. Always stay friendly toward it. It’s easier to come back to a good friend than an enemy.” p145

“When I reread my notebooks it never fails to remind me that I have a life, that I felt and thought and saw. It is very reaffirm, because sometimes writing seems useless and a waste of time. Suddenly you are sitting in your chair fascinated by your own mundane life. That’s the great value of art — making the ordinary extraordinary.” p172

Visit Natalie’s website. She has a new book out soon in paperback!

Really, you have to read it for yourself. Get it!

img_20151107_083316749_hdr
Above the clouds

 

 

 

 

Writing like a pilot

Glorious clear days mean flying.

cessna-172-skyhawk-flying-aviation-private-pilot
Cessna 172 Skyhawk

Chris is building pilot-in-command hours. There is a ridiculous number of categories and designations of flying privileges, starting with private pilot. The common denominator is each level requires more time in the air, so he gravitates towards Cessna 172s whenever winds are calm and visibility good.

He bought me a Bose noise-cancelling aviation headset to match his. It’s the sweetest and least-likely gift I’ve ever received, and the most useful. Without it, I’d be as deaf as a newel.

The first time we flew together was in Ann Arbor. Bouncing around in the choppy air, I kept reminding myself that at least we’d die together.

I’m braver now, though it still takes real effort to not grip his arm in panic when we hit a bump. Don’t mess with the hand that controls the trim wheel.

The last two days we logged five hours and I’m starting to get a teensy bit hooked on it. Chris is patient with my incessant (in-Cessnant?) questions: What’s that gauge? What does it mean when the controller says that? What happens if you push that button?

flying-bose-aviation-headset-noise-cancelling-private-pilot
Ready for take-off

Piloting is intensive, but not in the ways I thought. Most of the Cessna 172s at the rural Mississippi airport Chris flies out of date from the 70s. They remind me of VW Bugs. The instruments are basic. Some of them run off gyroscopes which whir away after the engine is off, like bees running out of buzz. Flying a single-engine plane is mechanics and talking. Before we even get in he does a full circuit, checking the fuel, oil, tyres, struts, air intake, and assorted bits of which I have yet to learn the names.

Once we’re buckled in and have our headsets on he reviews the controls, oil pressure, engine heat, fuel mix, lights and so forth. Laminated checklists guide every step from pre-flight to taxi to take-off to flying to landing. Chris also carries a little clipboard with notepaper to scribble down weather information and radio frequencies. These are the single most important thing once the engine kicks over. Radio navigation is the fundamental tool for getting from point to point; it’s what keeps planes from colliding in midair; it’s how lost pilots get found, and planes come safely through clouds.

aviation-charts-gps-maps-flying-private-pilot
Flight charts

Flying seems like magic but all it requires is the pilot understand and abide by simple standard practices. Check the equipment, know the frequencies, listen, trust the instruments: you’ll get where you’re going. Writing is the same.

Good writing may look like sorcery but it has patterns, structures and guidelines. Different types of writing have different “checklists” but even wild free verse or stiff academic prose follow basic rules of logic and language.

If you write beautifully by ear you can still learn
a huge amount (and gain courage) by understanding the principles of good writing. Before you know it, you’ll be flying.

Stay tuned for some of my favourite guidebooks… and share yours in the comments!

 

 

Write as if you were dying

“Write as if you were dying”. Annie Dillard’s advice (The Writing Life, p 68) has echoed in my head since I scribbled it in my notebook yesterday.

writing-life

“What would you begin writing,” she asks. “If you knew you would die soon?”

Yesterday’s answer was: I don’t know.

Today’s answer is shaded by the news of he-wh0-shall-not-be-named’s immigration ban. My mind keeps casting for a flicker of hope or relief. The hook comes up emptyemptyempty.

What would you write if sanity and morality were dying in your world, leaving good people gasping, upside down, like fish in a poisoned lake?

What the fuck can I say in the face of that?

Tweet. RT.

#resist #notmypresident #imanimmigrant

Someone, Natalie Goldberg maybe, said if you can ask a question you can answer it. Fine.

If I were dying, I’d write about not knowing where I belong. I’d write about the rain and the pine trees. I’d write about riding the old red Routemaster bus from Finchley Road to the Strand. I’d write about the nights drinking on Old Compton Street, and the Weatherspoons on Charing Cross Road. I’d write about making boots out of pink acrylic fur and wearing them to hard house raves beneath the arches at London Bridge. I’d write about buying Andy a Kinder Egg for Easter and watching him repair his trainers with superglue. I’d write about waiting for hours for a minute of conversation with Will; about the night he bought me a bottle of champagne in a drafty club in Elephant & Castle. I’d write about how extraordinary the stars are in southern Idaho, miles from the nearest town; and how the Nevada desert doesn’t look real beneath the pearly light of the full moon. I’d write about how the air smells at night in Ibiza and the whorled trucks of ancient olive trees. I’d write about the ribbon-like roads of the Amalfi Coast and the way the wind topples turquoise waves into streamers of white foam on the Mayan Riviera. I’d write about learning to taste wine and chargrill aubergines. I’d write about the dead men who make me grind my teeth. I’d write about feeling lost. I’d write about the books that shaped me, the ones I turn to for comfort. I’d write about being a god-fearing child and agnostic adult. I’d write that the most important thing in the world is being able to walk away. Then I’d contradict myself and say the most important thing is to know when to say.

amalfi-coast-italy-travel-mediterranean.JPG
Amalfi Coast, Italy

What I’d be trying to say, through all of it, is I don’t know. Maybe you do. Maybe someone does. But me? Nope. Not a clue. I don’t know what it means to be here, to be me. I don’t know what picture the pieces make. All the memories and experiences, all the fun and all the disasters, all the friendships and the distance.

This is where I should trot out a pithy homily and – zi-zang!- all will be clear. But it’s not that kind of day; arguably, as of today, we don’t live in that kind of world. There are no pat explanations or obvious answers. All I know is that we have a fundamental human obligation to treat each other with care and respect. Everything else — our histories, preferences, quirks, interests, opinions — are inconsequential compared to this single, immense obligation. The only question any more is What can I do to help?

Support: Amnesty International Support: Human Rights Watch Support: ACLU

 

 

Birthday Poem: ‘Trouble’

On encountering Jack Gilbert’s ‘Trouble’ I had to look up Saint Chrysostom. Turns out the holy man in question was the Archbishop of Constantinople and his feast day in the Eastern Orthodox calendar of such things is 27 January. On that note…

mediterranean-ibiza-travel-writing
Summer in the Mediterranean — Ibiza

‘Trouble’
by Jack Gilbert

This is what the Odyssey means.
Love can leave you nowhere in New Mexico
raising peacocks for the rest of your life. The seriously happy heart is a problem.
Not the easy excitement, but summer in the
Mediterranean mixed with the
rain and bitter cold of February on the
Riviera, everything on fire in the
violent winds. The pregnant heart
is driven to hopes that are the
wrong size for this world.
Love is always disturbing in the
heavenly kingdom.
Eden cannot manage so much ambition.
The kids ran from all over the piazza
yelling and pointing and jeering
at the young Saint Chrysostom
standing dazed in the church doorway
with the shining around his mouth
where the Madonna had kissed him.

Buy Jack Gilbert’s ‘Collected Poems’

Share your birthday with an interesting character ? Share in the comments