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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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