Friday, December 28, 2012

What I'm reading Now: "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott

Nearly every writer I've met has recommended Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott as a must-read selection with good reason. As artists, and we are artists who use words as our medium, each one of us has a different approach to our writing. However, there are some universal things about the craft that Ms. Lamott captures. The "shitty first draft," the hair pulling when we can't get a character, the blank stare at the computer when we fear the well is dry. The constant message is,"It's OK. Just keep writing."

I'm fairly new to this writing thing. I've only been at it consistently for a couple years. With two short stories published at Alfie Dog Ltd., my royalties don't even cover the coffee I buy as rent at the cafe where I write. I recently described my "process" to my sister as "Thumping around the hinterlands without a clue as to what I'm doing."  In some ways, it's very liberating. I'm not tied to one particular method, and I get to choose what I work on, where I work on it, and I am god of the universe I create. But for the very same reasons, writing this way can be very scary. I found myself highlighting a lot of quotes from this book that resonated with me, some not originally the author's.

"E.L. Doctorow: Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
This idea is particularly comforting to me. Every time the organization gene gets all crazy and lays out a brilliant outline, my characters rebel and I am off the plan within three sentences. Lesson 1: long term planning is a monumental waste of time for me. I have to take it one scene at time and very often they are not consecutive. Writing the end of the story sparks an idea for a scene in the beginning. What I've realized, especially after reading the chapter entitled "Shitty First Drafts," is that my first draft IS the plan. That's part of the reason why it sucks so badly. People change names, a character is pregnant, then miraculously, not. The draft is the time to play with the characters, figure out who they are and what they want, throw a couple barn fires and maybe snipers at them. So I stopped calling it a first draft. I call it a rough draft. I'll go back and edit it so it is fit for human eyes other than my own. THAT will be the first draft.
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people..."
Lesson 2: Just write it all out without editing.  I became particularly good at this during Nanowrimo when I had a daily word count goal. I just put it all down, practically stream of consciousness. I broke all of the rules: telling, not showing, long description of characters and settings. I turned off, to the best of my ability, the inner editor who constantly snarked about how bad the writing was. In some ways, writing like that was a little boring. There was no challenge of working each word until it was the perfect one, massaging the scene until I was sure the reader would be with me in the story. I learned that revision really is the writing, but the inner editor had to stay in the box until I had something to revise. Otherwise, her constant commentary would have me mowing the lawn instead of working on my rough draft.

I could go on and on about the inspiration and community I found in the pages of Bird by Bird. However, there were parts I couldn't relate too. I don't hang around martyrs in my non-writing life and I I studiously avoid hanging out with writers whose identity revolves around lamenting about how hard it is to write, to get an agent, to get published. I find the "artist" angst irritating because writing IS hard but wallowing in that aspect of it is non-productive and just feeds that evil inner editor until I end up folding laundry instead of writing my shitty first draft. It could be I'm suffering from "Newbie" hubris, but, someone is finding an agent and getting published every day. Why not me? I know it's not easy and without emotional ups and downs. However, I've read enough to know that my writing is, with a lot more work, publishable. The desperation, fear, and depression Ms. Lamott describes don't jibe with my world view, at all.

Still, I'd love to have a cup of coffee with Anne Lamott and talk writing with her. She is experienced and funny and has a great deal of wisdom to offer others. I picture her commiserating on tales of woe and cheering successes. Regardless if we are talking about the bad or good, I can hear her saying, "Just keep writing." After all, for a writer, that's the answer to just about any question.

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