Monday, July 21, 2014

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott shares the lessons about writing (and the corollaries about life) that she has conveyed to students in her writing classes. She provides tips and a number of exercises that writers can use to make the process of writing marginally less painful. Her core tips include giving oneself small writing assignments to complete as a way of getting started; acknowledging that your first drafts will be shitty but keeping at them (the larger message: give up on perfectionism); focusing on a small "picture frame" to get the hang of describing details (e.g., the contents of your school lunch); letting characters and plot develop like a polaroid, rather than expecting to know everything before you start writing; finding partners to work and share with. One of the most interesting exercises she suggests is writing to someone--writing a letter that explains some part of your life, or writing a story to the author of a work that moved you, for example. Throughout, Lamott deemphasizes the importance of publication and stresses writing as a means of self-realization, of filling the emptiness within, of taking part in an art that reflects some of the finest aspects of human nature.

While I can imagine the practical writing advice being useful (I am myself a writer, but, perhaps because of the type of writing I do--primarily K-12 social studies curriculum--I don't find writing the same arduous process that Lamott and others experience--but I also don't think about myself as being a creative writer), I suspect that the part of the book that has made it popular is Lamott's encouragement of writing as almost a form of therapy. Indeed, some of these pieces actually made me want to write a novel, not something I've aspired to over the years.

On the other hand, there are aspects of the book that annoy me. While Lamott can be both inspirational and funny, I sometimes felt that she was trying too hard to amuse--often by catastrophizing things in her life (perhaps she actually feels thing as intensely as she suggests, but it felt inauthentic to me).  In addition, as a nonreligious writer, I felt Lamott at times did exactly what she advised others not to do--spiritualizing her hysteria. I am willing to claim these annoyances as my problems rather than Lamott's, but I don't think I'll pick up another of her books.

Favorite passages:
I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.

. . . for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.

Metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known. But they only work if they resonate in the heart of the writer.  [This is one of the best definitions of metaphor that I have seen.]

No comments:

Post a Comment