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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Writing like a pilot

Glorious clear days mean flying.

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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.

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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!

 

 

How to read like a writer

“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor boatat the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including Hemingway’s Boat.

There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of Thenovel Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

 “You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Tbitteraught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.

2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slow reading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadlyfarewell-arms

Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

 5. Attentively

You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    stein

6. Fearlessly

Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”ulysses

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savoring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”

lighthouse

Writers’ Recommended Reading:

Ulysses – James Joyce
To The Lighthouse –Virginia Woolf
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
New York Review of Books