Someone Tapped My Brain Again, and Her Name is Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott (Photo credit: mdesive)

Did you ever read an article or a blog or a book, and afterward, you felt like the writer tapped your brain (but probably wrote everything much more coherently than you ever could have)? That is how I felt when I read Anne Lamott‘s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life “It’s one of the best books about writing ever written,” my writer/avid-reader cousin-in-law Julie told me. And I must agree. I only wish I’d known about it sooner. So now it is my turn to pass the good stuff onto other writers or people who are just interested in learning more about the writing process.
Although Bird by Bird is full of hyperbole, the exaggerations really aren’t too far off, at least with how writers often feel (even if we don’t literally move to a trailer park near our therapists, as Lamott suggests at one point). Her style is candid, humorous, and unafraid of pointing out some of the ugly realities of which new and non-writers are unaware. She explains writing truths that experienced writers know but that are so difficult to verbalize.
Below, are some of my favorite passages, although you should just do yourself a favor and read the whole book. If you want (or need) to be inspired, if you want to read about the trials and truths of what an author has experienced, this is the book for you.

Upon the publication of her first book, “it seemed that I was not in fact going to be taking early retirement. I had secretly believed that trumpets would blare, major reviewers would proclaim that not since Moby Dick had an American novel so captured life in all its dizzying complexity. And this is what I thought when my second book came out, and my third, and my fourth, and my fifth. And each time I was wrong.

“But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. . . The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.” (pp. xxv-xxvi)

 —

“A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of the truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.” (p. 52)

 —

“Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple.” (p. 53)

 —

“I do the menial work of getting [the words] down on paper, because I’m the designated typist, and I’m also the person whose job it is to hold the lantern while the kid does the digging. What is the kid digging for? The stuff. Details and clues and images, invention, fresh ideas, an intuitive understanding of people. I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn’t even know what the kid is digging for half the time—but she knows gold when she sees it.” (p. 56)

 —

“Over and over I feel as if my characters know who they are, and what happens to them, and where they have been and where they will go, and what they are capable of doing, but they need me to write down for them because their handwriting, is so bad.” (p. 60)

 —

Regarding writer’s block, “I no longer think of it as block. I think that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door.

“The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty. . .

“The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. . . 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.” (p. 178)

 —

“We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.” (p. 198)

 —

“Many nonwriters assume that publication is a thunderously joyous event in the writer’s life, and it is certainly the biggest and brightest carrot dangling before the eyes of my students. They believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo. Entire paragraphs and manuscripts of disappointment and rejection and lack of faith would be wiped out by one push of a psychic delete button and replaced by a quiet, tender sense of worth and belonging. Then they could wrap the world in flame.

“But this is not exactly what happens. Or at any rate, this is not what it has been like for me.” (pp. 210-211)

Why our writing matters: “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.” (p. 237)

If It’s Good Enough for Madeleine L’Engle, It’s Good Enough for Me

In several recent blogs, I’ve quoted Madeleine L’Engle, and for good reason. If you have not yet discovered her (she passed away a few years ago, although her writing lives on), I encourage you to click on any of the links or book covers in this blog. I will talk a little about how she has inspired and encouraged me, but there is so much more than I can include in one blog.

I credit L’Engle with one writing practice that I’ve kept up with for five years now, journaling. A lot of people poke fun at me about it, as if I’m ten and writing about the boy I have a crush on. But journaling is so much more than “Dear Diary” entries. It’s something that I can do with total honesty, without the fear of criticism or rejection, something that I can turn to later and either laugh at myself or marvel at how much an experience shaped my life.

It wasn’t Madeleine L’Engle who introduced the idea to me. Someone gave me my first diary when I was barely old enough to write cohesive sentences. I still have it, with a pink cover on the outside and the progression of my wobbly handwriting through the beginnings of cursive on the inside. It wasn’t a regular thing, but something fun for me to do from time to time, something that made me feel grown up. As a teenager, I tried to keep a more regular journal, but I eventually gave up and checked in maybe once every few months or years to say, “Yep, I graduated from high school” or “Wedding date set for next summer.”

Then in early 2007, I found out I was pregnant. I owned a number of books that I still had not read, and I knew that there was a chance that a new baby would occupy most of my reading time. Included in the list of unread books were a handful of Madeleine L’Engle’s, starting with her famous A Wrinkle in Time. There was also one entitled Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life (Writers’ Palette), which is a compilation of material from her writings, speeches, and workshops. Before I even finished the book, I adopted the journaling habit with renewed enthusiam and vigor.

L’Engle gives three recommendations to writers: “read, keep an honest journal, and write every day” (188). Reading wasn’t a problem. And I wrote when I had the time or when inspiration struck, often in spurts. But journaling? I recalled my poor, neglected blank book (I did actually graduate from the pink cover to a Star Wars one at some point), and I had no idea when I’d written in it last. When I finally found the book, I realized that if anyone were to pick it up, my life would seem full of holes. There were many significant events that I had not bothered to document. Organizer that I am, I went through all my old calendars, looking at all that had happened in the years since I’d kept my journal somewhat faithfully, and I began the act of recording. Well over a month later, I sat in a hospital bed, waiting to welcome my first child into the world, and I finished catching up. I’ve kept it up daily ever since.

Sometimes I simply go through the motions: “I woke up late today”; “It was a typical Tuesday”; “I’m too tired to think straight, but here I am, anyway.” If I’m so busy that I hardly have time to pause and write in my journal, it’s even more important that I force myself to do so. Otherwise, it might be a day in which my writing skills become stagnant. Like playing scales on the piano or stretching before a run, this practice is necessary to keep a writer primed. I’ve gone months at a time when my journal was the only place I wrote, and I’m thankful that I had it. So ingrained is the practice now that not doing it would be like forgetting to brush my teeth.

I don’t know what inspired me to do so, but I recently re-read Herself. Due to its format (most sections are less than one page), I absorbed it one idea at a time and over the period of a couple months rather than a few days. If I came away with the discipline of journaling five years ago, I left with so much more in the way of writerly advice this time around. I think it’s safe to say that my blogs will contain quotes from her for a while. I admire her for her strength as a person as well as a writer. She stuck with her chosen vocation through a decade of rejection (and she’d already published successfully before that), which inspires me to hold on and persevere through the unfriendly publishing world.

Page 34 says, “Being a writer does not necessarily mean being published. It’s very nice to be published. It’s what you want. When you have a vision, you want to share it. But being a writer means writing. It means building up a body of work. It means writing every day.” Many people, knowing that I write but was (for the most part) unpublished called me an aspiring writer. Lack of publication, however, makes me no less of a writer. It’s writing that is the qualifier here. L’Engle gave me permission to call myself what I really am.

One final thing (and I’m culling the list quite a bit here) is her knowledge on writing for children. I do not consider myself a writer for children, per se. In fact, the two stories that I have published (one out of print, the other here at Smashwords.com) are not for children at all, although they do have children as secondary characters. If you’re familiar with A Wrinkle in Time, a book that is included in the elementary school curriculum of many schools, did you know that L’Engle did not originally write it for a young audience? She simply wrote it, and it was categorized for children later. “To write for children,” she says, “it usually synonymous with writing down to children, and that’s an insult to [them]. Children are far better believers than adults; they are aware of what most adults have forgotten” (157). I certainly want to write for an audience who believes, so that is the goal I keep in mind when I write. And on that future date when someone (I hope) finds my book worthy of publication, I can worry about which age group wants to read it.

Hold It! You’re Exercising Wrong (I Know I Was)

Cover of "Hold It! You're Exercising Wron...

I read Hold It! You’re Exercising Wrong: Your Prescription for First-Class Fitness Fast! the first time in 1999. I was about to give up on exercise completely because I exercised all the time, yet I never lost weight. I was chubby and had low self-esteem. I wanted to tell people I ran into, “I really shouldn’t look like this. I do workouts from a weightlifting book by Lou Ferrigno. I do step aerobics, too, I promise.”

Searching the fitness section of Chamblin Bookmine (the most awesome bookstore in northeast Florida, by the way), author Edward Jackowski’s title practically jumped out and grabbed me. I knew I had to be doing something wrong to work out so often and have absolutely no results. And when I read the book, I discovered that there were many people in the same situation. The reason is that there are many fitness programs out there, but they are often directed at anyone and everyone instead of targeting the appropriate body types.

Jackowski lists four body types, according to where one puts on weight. Cones are broader of shoulder and narrower at the hips, putting more weight and muscle on the upper halves of their bodies (usually men but not always). Rulers gain weight evenly from top to bottom, with small to medium hips. Spoons are the opposites of cones, amassing weight on the lower halves of their bodies, particularly thighs. And finally, hourglasses (most often women) are proportional on top and bottom, usually with slender waists.

Body types are genetic, so there’s no way to change that. Jackowski, however, details plans for each type, listing which exercises to avoid (because they accentuate the negative aspects of those particular body types) and which to add to a person’s routine to become as fit as possible. I found out, since I was a spoon, Lou-Ferrigno-style weightlifting and step aerobics were the two last things that I should have done. As soon as I adopted Jackowski’s workout, I became physically fit within a few short months.

The most gratifying part was running into friends several months after losing weight, and they looked at me and asked where “the rest of me” was, since there wasn’t as much of me as there had been before.

There are many things I love about Jackowski’s workout. First, he explains why we need to do certain things, like a warm up and stretches and why they need to go in a particular order. And the exercises he recommends don’t require any special or expensive equipment. If I don’t have time to do a full workout, I can pick and choose exercises and tailor the whole thing to my limited schedule. Since 2009, I have also added the spoon-appropriate exercises from P90X and Spartacus.

The central component to the You’re Exercising Wrong workout, which is challenging for many people, is jump rope. According to Jackowski, “you burn more fat with rope jumping than with any other exercise” (81). I try to jump rope two to three times a week, and at one point between babies, I could do so continuously for ten minutes. It sounded impossible at first, but I built up gradually from 30 seconds to one minute on up. If an average girl who barely participated in team sports can do it, anyone with two functional legs can. Even if you’re skeptical about the jump rope part, I highly recommend this book if you want to get into shape and learn more about your own body type.

My Babies Slept with the Help of Babywise

There is a reason On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep is my favorite gift to give new parents; it is the number one parenting book in my own collection. Authors Gary Ezzo and Dr. Robert Bucknam not only offer advice on how to get infants to sleep through the night, but they also cover a wide range of issues from how to raise multiples to what to do about colicky and reflux babies to fitting baby in with an older sibling or siblings to which baby products to buy and beyond.

I was very skeptical when a family member recommended Babywise, but she swore that it was the main reason all of her babies slept through the night by eight weeks. I had many other books in my maternity collection, but even the book that was specifically about breastfeeding didn’t give me nearly as helpful advice as Babywise did about the pros and cons of breast versus bottle, when to feed, and most importantly, why to feed (or not feed) at certain times.

Both of my sons had colic and reflux. Not only is there a chapter dedicated to these specific issues, but it also encourages parents like me to stay on the Babywise plan, with necessary modifications. Instead of giving up because my children had a few early problems, sticking with it helped them regulate and sleep through the night at seven and eight weeks, respectively.

So what is it that Babywise recommends? It’s called parent-directed feeding (PDF). Someone asked me, “Is it one of those books where it tells you not to feed your baby?” Absolutely not! Rather, it teaches parents how to recognize when the baby actually needs nourishment versus a diaper change or some other form of care. Just because the baby cries doesn’t mean he needs the breast or bottle, in other words. Many people of the attachment persuasion are opposed to this method, but think of it this way: You wouldn’t eat when you had a stomach ache or just needed to get some rest, so why would you put food in your baby’s upset tummy or try to pacify him by nursing when what he really needs is a nap?

Ezzo and Bucknam explore the history of parenting theories and explain the extremes of hyperscheduling (the baby must eat every X hours—no flexibility!) to no schedule at all. PDF is a happy medium, creating a predictable, flexible routine, which babies and children crave. They will be happy, well-rested, self-assured babies with equally well-rested and satisfied parents.