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 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.