“Writing is hard for every last one of us–straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.” This was Cheryl Strayed’s uplifting response to a letter of despair she received from an aspiring writer named Elisa Bassist.
To write is to dig deep beneath our surface and excavate everything that needs to be said. This process is not always pleasant. Some days, if we are lucky, our words and metaphors can string together, creating equal parts of truth and beauty. But some days, as Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”
Is writing really like what Vonnegut described? Even if it’s true, there are things that can help us to ease the uncomfortable experience of writing. Anne Lamott‘s book titled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Public Library) (Amazon) is one of those comforters for any perplexed writers.
Lamott does two grand things in this book: offering non-cliche friendly wisdom on writing that can also be applied in life and sprinkling hilarious anecdotes in every page that will make her readers giggle uncontrollably. The combination of wisdom and humor makes this book hard to put down.
Lamott started reading and writing at an early age. Having born to parents who had an unquenchable appetite for reading, Lamott grew up around books, stories, and fantasies. Her father was also a writer who, as she described, “wrote books and articles about the places and the people he had seen and known.” Lamott dropped out of college at the age of nineteen to pursue her calling as a writer. Her path was circuitous. Right after she was out of college, she took up some odd jobs to keep herself afloat. She was a Kelly girl, a clerk-typist, a tennis coach, and a house cleaner. All the while, she would stubbornly write everyday until she eventually got her book published when she was twenty six.
She thought seeing her book on print was everything that she had wanted. But in spite of her early publication, she eventually realized that publication was not as glamorous as she had imagined. The real gift of writing, she realized, is what we write–the act of writing itself. Publication arrives as an extra gift.
“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. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do–the actual act of writing–turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”
In her book, Lamott argues that publication is also an illusion or a fantasy. Whenever Lamott teaches a class on writing, she always receives endless questions about publication from her students. Some of her students, she observes, write not because they believe they have distinct stories that need to be told. They write because they want to get published. This latter motive is something that Lamott wants to reconstruct:
“Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram–it’s the eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar. What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you’ll get better. At times when you’re working, you’ll sit there feeling hung over and bored, and you may or may not be able to pull yourself up out of it that day. But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And so if one of your heart’s deepest longings is to write, there are ways to get your work done, and a number of reasons why it is important to do so.”
And what are those reasons again? my student ask.
Because 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 quite 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.”
One of my favorite chapters of the book talks about perfectionism. As humans, we all know very well what perfectionism is. It is our disguised “weakness” that we like to brag at job interviews. Perfectionism looks very glamorous when we see it, but at its core, it is our fear: fear of making mistakes, fear of being judged insignificant, fear of being stuck. It is fear that drives us to be a perfectionist.
Lamott has something wise to say about this topic:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at the their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
Bridging perfectionism to writing, Lamott says:
“Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). 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. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground–you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.”
No matter how hard we try, sometimes when we write, the voice of perfectionism will soar above our writing voice–the true voice that makes our stories alive. For Lamott, writing is always about clearing space, physically and mentally, to let ideas bloom. The hardest thing is when our state of mind is cluttered with an unnecessary voice that doesn’t contribute to the shape of our story.
Lamott coins a funky term for this unnecessary voice. She calls it “radio station KFKD (K-Fucked)”. Writers need to be alert as soon as it starts playing its songs such as songs of self-loathing, perfectionism, and self-doubt. Lamott believes that once the volume of “radio” starts to get louder, we need to be less reactive and more reflective on its impulse. This is what she advises us:
“You have to get things quiet in your head so you can hear your characters and let them guide your story.
Still, breathing calmly can help you get into a position where the workings of your characters’ hearts and the things people say on the streets of your story can be heard above the sound of KFKD. When you are in that position, you will know.”
She continues talking about KFKD, and strangely finds a revelation that helps her to understand more about it in a little book on prayer she steals from her church. It’s not a book on writing, but it adds a new understanding of writing.
“The meeting ended, and on my way out, a little book on prayer caught me eye. I picked it up and stuck it in my purse, figuring I could look at it over dinner and then return it the next Sunday.
I started to read and within a page came upon this beautiful passage: ‘The Gulf Stream will flow through a straw provided the straw is aligned to the Gulf Stream, and not at cross purposes with it.’
So now I always tell my students about the Gulf Stream: that what it means for us, for writers, is that we need to align ourselves with the river of the story, the river of the unconscious, of memory and sensibility, of our characters’ lives, which can then pour through us, the straw. When KFKD is playing, we are at cross purposes with the river. So we need to sit there, and breathe, calm ourselves down, push back our sleeves, and begin again.”
More than twenty years after its publication, Bird by Bird remains one of the most important books on the craft of writing. The amount of writing advice in the world is plenty. What separates the good ones and the greats ones is rarely articulable, but to me, the great advice on writing is the one that can be applied directly to life. Writing is part of the reality of living. It is part of how we further our understanding of the world we inhabit. To talk about writing is to talk about life itself. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott doesn’t only talk about the art of writing but also the art of living.