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)

What Comes After NaNoWriMo?

The setup for NaNoWriMo at home, if I need to ...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Okay, NaNoWriMo folks, are you almost there? Are you sweating it the last few hours, sprinting toward the 50,000-word finish line? I’ll come right out and say I’m not. I cannot imagine sitting down one day to start writing a book and, thirty days later, finishing a 50,000-word novel. But that is just what NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month) authors do every November.

I’m more like an InNoWriDe (Independent Novel Writing Decade) person. I have started more novels than I care to remember. I’ve “finished” three, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like they’re complete unless and until I publish them. And even then, there are very well-known authors who revise and republish books years after publication.

The first draft of the first novel I ever finished took nine months. I didn’t have a deadline in particular, although I did have a daily goal. Every night, I wrote longhand, one side of a college-ruled sheet of paper. (Yes, I love writing longhand. Not for everything, of course. Takes longer, but there is something visceral and satisfying about it.) Sometimes I wrote much more, but sometimes it was a slog. I wrote lousy exposition that I knew wouldn’t make it to the next revision because it simply got me to the next plot point.

More recently, I joined a short-term writing group, and we called ourselves the Spartan 300. Our goal: to write 300 words per day, six days a week. I know that 300 words don’t sound like a lot, but when you’re so busy that you think you don’t have the time to write at all, it’s a good place to start.

Compare that to the daily 1,667 words a NaNoWriMo writer must get on paper to create a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I feel like a wimp. I would love to write in such quantities–well, let me rephrase and say write something good in such quantities. But even if I ironed out my schedule and had a plan, one part that would drive me nuts is waiting until November first. What if I had a great idea in August and then had to wait three months to start writing? Notes, outlines, and research are all allowed, but no prose, no narrative. (Check out all the guidelines at nanowrimo.org.)

But then the opposite problem can also happen. What if your idea factory is empty on day one? Or what if, around 40,000 words, you hit writer’s block? Do you take the day off and pray for inspiration? Write “watermelon” 1600 times? (Somehow, I don’t think that counts.) What usually happens when I start a novel is I write like crazy for weeks or even months, but then I lose the thread. I look around and think, Someone really needs to finish writing this novel so I can know what happens next.

Encouraged by NaNoWriMo, I decided that I would make myself do some form of career-oriented writing every day. Journaling is a necessity, but it doesn’t count toward my quota. I have to blog or edit or write new material for one of my on-going works of fiction. I figured if I could type 1600 words of new blogs daily, I could have a year’s raw material available at the end of a month. But the perfectionist in me couldn’t leave well enough alone, so while I’ve written plenty, it’s been a lot of re-writing. And on top of that, why, oh why, did I resolve to do this in November? There are a million things going on, from my elder son’s birthday and a busier work schedule to Thanksgiving break and holiday shopping–plus all the usual distractions. I suppose there will never be a time, when I can look at a calendar and find a month when I can block off a couple hours for writing every day. I would have to quit my job, quit volunteering, quit being a mother, something. Yet NaNoWriMo is for anyone, not just people with big blanks in their schedules. This is what amazes me. Stay-at-home moms, corporate job dads, students, retirees–people of all walks of life and experience levels sign up, and my proverbial hat’s off to them.

I imagine, after a month of concentrated writing, you have mixed feelings at the end. Remember how it feels to finish reading a riveting book? Life outside the story goes on, even though it hurts to put away something in which you’ve invested a lot of time and emotion. You’re glad you finally know how it ends, can’t stop thinking about it, and feel a bit empty because you’re supposed to move on. (Sometimes I fail miserably and jump right back in to my favorite fictional world du jour.) The same thing goes for writing. When I finished the first draft of that first novel, I was proud of myself for making it all the way through, a bit sad that I was done with the initial outpouring of creativity, but excited because the story wasn’t over. (Those other two novels I’ve finished? Books two and three of the series. The fourth is still a work-in-progress.)

The goal of NaNoWriMo is output, not a polished gem of a book. So you write your 50,000-word (or more) novel. You cross the finish line, maybe limping or tripping over hanging prepositions, but you make it. What comes next? Do you look at it, see that (like me) you had to write a lot of crap in the process of telling your story, and throw it in a drawer where no one will ever see it? Do you show it to everyone you know, proud of your achievement? Do you say, “Yay for me. Now onto the next challenge”?

The best reaction I’ve heard was from my friend Ruthanne, who had a very valid reason to give up (a nasty virus that has persisted throughout most of the month), yet she finished–and early, too. About her NaNoWriMo experience, Ruthanne said, “I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot about myself in the process. Now I know I can do it and I know what’s easy for me and what’s hard. I wrote!! I didn’t just dream about writing: I wrote.” I hope those of you who took on the challenge, whether you achieved the word count goal or not, feel Ruthanne’s triumph–and continue to feel it. Don’t stop now! You’ve proven you can do it, so keep it up throughout the year (although you can ease off on the word count). And if I hear enough other raving reviews, maybe when the stars align, I will sign up for NaNoWriMo, too.