Monday, July 29, 2013

Thoughts on Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Once in a while, I stumble upon a work of prose that turns out to be a breath of fresh air and a genuine comfort to me.  I've recently discovered Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird, subtitled "Some Instructions on Writing and Life."  If you've not read this wise and funny little book, I recommend it. 

Bird in hand
Bird in hand by jcandeli 

It is always a great relief to discover someone who has also struggled with writing anxiety and has learned to thrive in spite of it.  It's also a comfort to know that I'm not the only one plagued now and again by the strange terror of dying suddenly before I can fix things in my work-in-progress. Bird By Bird is very much a conversation between Ms. Lamott and her readers about the process and perseverance of the writing life with an electric sense of humor.  Most of what she has to say I'd absorbed before in writing classes and workshops, but it was oh so good to read it again in her voice.  "We are just going to take this bird by bird," she says (p 20), in other words step by step.

One ray of sunshine that she offers us is the concept of the "shitty first draft."  In fact, it's not a concept - it's a fact.  "All good writers write them.  This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts... I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. (p 21)"  I need to pin this to my board (or my forehead), because I have do have a wild tendency to fantasize about published writers and the apparent ease with which they "should" be working.  But art isn't easy.  It's really hard, and yet really good.

Perfectionism messes us up and keeps us from completing anything: "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 your shitty first draft" (p 28). Lamott emphasizes the beauty of sheer effort, perseverance, writing for the sake of the story, silencing the voices in our heads that tend to lead us off course.  Trust your intuition - the creative, irrational part of you, she says, "but be careful: if your intuition says that your story sucks, make sure it's your intuition and not your mother. (113)" 

We should be focused on story and conveying truth through our characters, getting to know them instead of forcing them to conform to some preset notion of what a story is. The thing is, we won't know what the story will be, what will happen unless we follow our instincts and continue unconsciously down the path of discovery. Ms. Lamott reminds us that we shouldn't write solely for publication, but to write to give something back to others, to let something out of ourselves.  "I tell you, if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy" (214.) In other words: aim for the joy of story, not publication.

The over all message from this book that I intercepted was that the rest of the world will think I'm crazy, but that's okay.  It struck me that I should be writing a wider variety of things - bits and bobs, journals, bloggings, stories - persevering in them and pushing back the road blocks to enjoying the writing life.  I do have days when sitting down to my awful first draft (or any draft, if we want to be honest) feels like climbing Mt. Everest in 4 inch heels with a broken toe.  I'll just take a couple of deep breaths, put the nagging overly-rational voices aside and tackle the story - whatever it is - bird by bird.  Thank you, Anne Lamott. If we should chance to meet sometime I will greet you with a big hug.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

In Defense of Shrinking Violets

violet flowers
Violet Flowers by nondesigner59

I happen to like violets, violas and pansies.  They're sweet, unimposing, simple flowers.  Last year I found them growing all over the landscaping immediately in front of the house, seeded from violas I'd had on the front porch two summers before.  This spring I spied a third-generation patch growing in the middle of the lawn and took pains to rescue it from the lawnmower.  The original violas lasted from the end of May to October 2011. 

If properly cared for these can be hearty little plants, audaciously standing tall amidst a garden of bigger, bolder blooms. But they will shrink if they're not watered enough, or if it's too darned hot.  Or if a gardener decides that they are nothing but pretty weeds.  The phrase "shrinking violet" must come from this, and it's no surprise that I've seen it on writing blogs.  "This is no time to be a shrinking violet" someone wrote once in relation to "getting out there" in the publishing world, to relentlessly pursue agents and attend conferences, tweet like there's no tomorrow and blog until your fingers bleed.

I know it's meant to be taken lightly, but there are times when I resent this metaphor.  I cannot help but detect an implication that "shrinking" is cowardice or even laziness, a failure to act.  Simply, I am not and never have been a flashy person.  I cringe at the idea of crowds and loud places, and those things stress and tire me out easily.  It isn't quite fear, but the way I was made.  My energy simply cannot stretch that far, therefore, I've learned in the last few years how best to use the energy I have: writing my novels, steadily querying agents, slowing down on the things that tie my brain in knots. 

2nd generation violas, 2012.

I sympathize with the violet and the pansy, because I often feel that I'm a cluster of little insignificant flowers in a garden full of more impressive specimens. The snowdrop boldly pops up through the snow, wasting little time as spring comes on.  The poenies spread out their arms and legs and take up as much space as possible.  The poppies are red and rich.  The roses - oh, the roses! - open in their intricate splay of petals and smell like heaven, drawing the human eye towards it like a perfect sunset in the garden.  The clematis shows off its climbing skills.  The four-o'-clocks demonstrate their punctuality.  With marigolds, impatiens and cosmos, lilies and vines, flowering shrubs and bleeding hearts, the attention seems to be everywhere else.  Sometimes it seems downright Sisyphean to try to be anything other than what I am, a viola working a thriving quietly in my own special bit of earth. 

That does not mean that I'm shrinking.  Right now, I'm still waiting on agent responses to my recent batch of queries... and have received many "thanks-but-no-thanks" form letters.  If I was shrinking, I wouldn't be preparing to do it again in a few months time.  I keep reminding myself that an agent out there also likes violets; I simply haven't found him or her yet. 

I hope to be like the vagabond violas I find year after year in the garden and the lawn: shrinking down, but coming back time after time.

Monday, July 1, 2013


Words by Daniel Smith

I've spent the last month diving back into the sequel of my novel.  In so doing, I've had little brain space for tweets and blogs - I'm sure you understand what that's like.  The nature of the sequel is/will be quite different from its predecessor, as well, and I've had to acquaint myself with a totally different narrative personality (male and intense, as opposed to female and a bit naive) and backstory.  It is an intricate process not only familiarizing myself with the new voice but building the vector, or plot line, on which the novel will be going.  It's like juggling.  Or trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach.

The hard part isn't so much writing from the point of view of a man, mercurial and deeply wounded, but keeping the outside world (and my worry over my place in that world) decidedly OUT of my writing.  Reading Jeanne Kisacky's post on "What Not to Think About When Your Writing" on Writer Unboxed this weekend definitely helped me on that score: don't think about your life; don't think about the industry.  She says "the fastest way to end creativity and lose the tenuous hold you might have on the gorgeous will-o-the-wisp which is your perfectly told story: think about the state of the industry and how it is all crashing down (in some form or another) while you write."  Yup.  Been there.  Done that.  Not pretty. 

It is difficult to ignore the fact that my first novel is still on submission and that I'm still waiting for someone (anyone!) to request a partial manuscript.  (Come on!  Just one!  Please!  Do you ever get to the point where you think you're annoying God with all of your prayers?)  Logic would dictate - hey, should you be writing the sequel before the first novel is, you know, "out there"?  Logic is wrong.  Writing, in fact, has very little to do with logic or common sense or whatever it is.  The fact is, I've long come to terms with the fact that this story demands to be told: Dorian's story and Sive's story.  This is my vector, and I know it's right,  even if the outside world makes me want to "cry havoc" or curl up in a ball under my desk. 

The important thing is that I'm writing and learning how to handle this purgatorial agent search.  In a few years time, I'll look back on this as just part of my education.


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