My dream of publishing a full-length novel is a dream that’s still sitting somewhere off in the future, waiting for me to finally attain it. I find it so much easier to sit down and write a short blog multiple times a week than to really dive into the multi-year task of writing a full book. I know that creative writing can be a different process for every writer, but I also recognize the value of learning from authors that have been successful in the past. So today I’m going to take some time to share a few of the lessons from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
Lesson 1: Write What You Know
Simple, right? Most authors would give this advice. In the opening sentence of Lamott’s book, she says, “…good writing is about telling the truth.” If you stretch yourself too far and try to cover topics and subject areas in which you are a relative novice, your readers will see right through you.
If you want to write about farm life, for example, you damn well better have some experience with it! The tough part about this, according to Lamott, is that the actual unveiling of the truth (your truth, mind you!) can be quite tiresome. She says that “…telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.”
Many writers lose faith in their ability to craft genuinely interesting stories from their truths. But we all have to start somewhere and it’s likely that the first good bit of what we put on paper may never see the light of day. So where do you start, you might ask? Lamott suggests starting with your childhood. “Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”
Lesson 2: There Is No Such Thing As a Perfect Book
I can attest to the drawbacks of perfectionism. I fear to even start writing (a lot of the time) out of fear that what I put down on paper is going to be absolute garbage. Most of my writer friends feel the same way. It’s terrifying to put yourself out into the world (even in book form). What if nobody likes your book? Worse yet, what if nobody even reads it?
Anne Lamott suggests that perfectionism has no place in the life of the aspiring author. “It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life,” she says, “and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” We need these crappy starts in order to filter out what it is that we really want to say. What message are you really trying to send? What lessons do you want people to take away from your writing?
If we succumb to perfectionism, we risk never creating the mess through which we find and collect our beautiful gems. According to Lamott, “Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.” So you don’t want to sort for the proverbial needle in a haystack? Well, alright then. But it sounds like there’s a great story there to me.
Lesson 3: ‘False Starts’ Are Essential
When we sit down to write about a character, a scene, or a plot, we delve into these things only with the limited understanding we currently possess. To truly write a complete character, for example, you really must know that character inside and out. You really must understand the nuances of the scene you’re trying to create. And you really must think through the twists and turns of the plot to make sure it ultimately ends up in a worthwhile place (fortunately, you get to be the one to decide if that place is ‘worthwhile’!).
Lamott suggests that we must attempt to write about characters, scenes, and plots long before we fully understand them and, subsequently, we must be willing to discard our early attempts at ‘false starts’ when we recognize that our understanding has grown and much of what we wrote at the start is now inaccurate or irrelevant.
She drives this home with her own story about accompanying several members of her church to a convalescent home once a month to conduct worship services. She says, “After that first dismal visit, I thought I knew who the residents were and what they were capable of, what they were all about. If I had started to write, I would have written about them with confidence, and I would have been all wrong.”
She goes on to say that she has been returning to the same home for four years now, even though she’s not really sure why she continues to go. But these visits have taught her much about life and death and have allowed her to foster deeper relationships with the residents and learn more about them and life at the home in general. Perhaps, she goes back because she recognizes that, one day, she might very well find herself in the same position as many of the residents there.
She reflects on her time at the home: “That’s how real life works, in our daily lives as well as in the convalescent home and even at the deathbed, and this is what good writing allows us to notice sometimes. You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness, and then some surprising connections appear.”
Lesson 4: Listen to Your ‘Broccoli’
Have I lost you yet? Okay, spoiler alert: broccoli is a metaphor for your intuition. Lamott explains it as such: “It means, of course, that when you don’t know what to do when you don’t know whether your character would do this or that, you get quiet and try to hear that still small voice inside.”
As we know, however, this is easier said than done. Somehow, someway(s), it usually becomes harder for us to locate and listen to our ‘broccoli’ (intuition) as we get older. As children, we were much more in tune and, although we may not have liked eating our broccoli, we damn sure had a good idea of what we believed to be true and rarely hesitated to share these truths. Then, according to Lamott, “…we were often either corrected, ridiculed or punished…So you may have gotten into the habit of doubting the voice that was telling you quite clearly what was really going on. It is essential that you get it back.”
Your intuition will guide you through matters much larger than the smaller questions of where your characters should go or what they should do next. This piece of advice, in my opinion, can be applied to much more than writing. It will circle back in your life again and again if you continue to ignore it. Rekindling your relationship with your intuition is vital to your ability to achieve your Personal Legend (see The Alchemist), whether that’s publishing a best-selling novel or becoming the greatest composer who ever lived.
Lesson 5: You Are Not Alone!
When we learn about many of history’s most famous authors, most (if not all) are accompanied by tales of striking out on their own or barricading themselves from the outside world in order to create their masterpieces. I have often bought into this idea (most certainly a false one!) that it requires extreme solitude to become a successful writer.
Lamott, as you might imagine, contradicts this idea and her book contains a whole section dedicated to getting ‘Help Along The Way’. She talks about stashing index cards and pens all over her house, car, in her purse, and anywhere else where an idea might strike. She quotes the classic Henry James line: “A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.” The gist of her index card advice is that (to at least some extent) writers need to have social lives, and it is in these contexts where ideas and snippets of characters are often born. So when they come up, write them down! (fortunately, most of us now have smartphones that allow us to take notes quickly on-the-go!)
She also touches on calling around to gain information about subject areas when you’re stuck. For example, she says, “There are an enormous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone.”
She also highly recommends the benefits of becoming part of a writing group. These groups are essential to your feedback loop. They will (most often) provide you with constructive criticisms on your writing, i.e. what’s good, what sucks, and how you can improve. As Lamott mentions, “You wouldn’t spend a month on an oil painting and then mummify it. You would hang it where people could see it.”
I am still very much designing, improvising, and adapting when it comes to formulating writing habits that work for me. Currently, those habits are very sporadic. I find a few hours of inspiration here and there. And ideas come to me in the strangest places at the oddest times. But I’m writing them down (or noting them on my phone) for future use.
I’m heading to Costa Rica this winter with the intention to create a book of adventure stories and launch into my first fiction work. My (current) idea is to craft a modern-day ‘Fern Gully’-Esque revision centering around the destructive nature of tourist activity and the potential of nature if it decided to ‘fight back’. It’ll be a work in progress (until it’s not) but I’m excited about the idea. After all, every great book started with a simple idea, did it not?
What Are Your Thoughts?
Have you already read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? If so, are there any lessons you took away that I didn’t mention in this post? If not, are you interested in reading it now? And what kinds of tips and/or lessons are you looking for to help you cultivate your own healthy writing (or living) habits?
I’d love to hear your feedback on this post and I’d also love to start a conversation about the daily habits that you rely on for success! Please leave a comment below if you are inspired, perplexed, saddened, or angered by any of the ideas presented above.
I welcome any and all comments and will do my best to respond hastily. I’d also encourage you to share this with others if you found it particularly insightful or helpful. Be sure to tag @ballisterwriting on Facebook or Instagram if you do!