Monday, November 22, 2004

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

I want to depart a bit from my usual course this morning and talk to you about a book on writing written by the writer Anne Lamott. The book is entitled Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I always assume as I give these little pieces that they are addressed to readers, passionate readers, and I find myself personally offended when friends assume that because I’m such a reader, I must also want to write. Indeed, some even imply that my being so addicted to reading must entail that what I really want to do is write, reading being a sort of pale counterfeit. Those who can do, and those who can’t read, or some such mantra. In fact, I am primarily a reader; if I believed in teleology, I’d even say that I was meant to read. Still, even I have to admit that there are those moments when I want to write, not simply that I want to have written something (a very different desire), but that I want to write. Anne Lamott speaks to those of us who have some such deep desire, urges us to come out of the closet, and to write. She is quick to insist that her book is not a book on the technical aspects of writing, nor on the whys and hows of getting published. If it is that sort of book one is looking for, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers is a much better source. No, Lamott wants simply to talk to us about writing, and she does it with the humor and compassion that we have come to expect from her fiction. This is not a great book, but it is a lot of fun to read, and I think it just might liberate some of you enough to get you to put pen to paper, or, more likely, fingers to keyboard.

What I like most about this book (besides the warm, good humor) is Lamott’s insistence that wanting to write and wanting to get published are two very different things, and also that getting published is not the kind of salvation that many aspiring writers take it to be. In her words, “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.” The other point that she returns to over and over is that, as Doris Lessing has said (though much more acerbically than Lamott), the difference between writers and those who want to be writers is that writers write. Having grown up with a writer father, she had someone around to advise her in what I think are just the right ways. Take on little projects; don’t worry about where the piece is going or who will read it, or whether it will get published.
Do it every day for a while,’ my father kept saying. ‘Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.
Those of you who write know that this is good advice, and just the sort of advice to give someone who is wondering how to start. I remind my students all the time that writers simply are not born, that wanting to be a writer will not, as if by magic, allow one to sit down one day and write a great novel. Writing takes practice, just as any skill or craft takes practice. And if you don’t like the practice, then you don’t really like writing. The secret, in the end, is to fall in love with writing in much the same way that you fell in love with reading. The more writing becomes something that you want to do, even that you have to do, the more likely it is that you will write and keep writing.

I like also that Lamott keeps these two passions, these two skills of reading and writing, closely linked. Indeed, she insists, “… becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” Ah, how nice. That is just the way in which I generally try to turn things around when I talk to readers and writers. Don’t think of reading as a means to some greater end (writing or teaching or being an expert) but as a kind of end in itself. And the same for writing,
The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get to where you want to be that way, I tell them.
You will have to read Lamott to understand just how thoroughly she distinguishes these two urges, and how much she wants to warn writers not to expect too much from getting published. If one writes only or primarily to get published, then once the goal is reached, you may very well expect a kind of deliverance that is just not there, and you might also, having not been saved or delivered as you had hoped, stop writing, and that will be the failure—a kind of failure that not getting published will never be.

Along with urging us to take on small projects, one bird at a time, Lamott also warns us against the ever-lurking danger of perfectionism.
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.
Ah, and that first draft, no matter how bad, that is the key—the key to the second draft, the key (in case there is one) to the finished piece, and most importantly, the key to unblocking, to moving from wanting to be a writer to wanting to write.

And what, in the end, is the task of the writer? What is it that s/he is supposed to be doing. About this question, Lamott does not dance around, does not evade; she is unafraid. The goal, the end, is to tell the truth. Heidegger may take more time to say it, and may say it in more tortured and obscure language (as he tells us that the artist makes truth happen, that s/he brings being out of concealment, discloses being), but he is no more passionate nor certain than Lamott that the obligation of the writer is to tell the truth. Bravo! It is not very fashionable these days to talk of truth at all, not unless you are willing to talk only of ‘my truth,’ or ‘your truth,’ of something’s being true-for-me. I applaud Lamott for not simply trying to sidestep this issue or to qualify it in every way possible; instead, she announces it as intuitively obvious—the end is to tell the truth. Now, of course, the writer’s way of telling the truth, especially if that writer writes fiction, is roundabout. Just as Lily Tomlin, masquerading as the little girl in the rocking-chair, talks with disgust about her parents who accuse her of making things up, which she doesn’t do, since making things up is lying, and she doesn’t lie. Still, Tomlin adds, “But you can make up the truth, if you know how.” Lamott gives us much the same message,
This brings us to the matter of how we, as writers, tell the truth. 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. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up. I suppose the basic moral reason for doing this is the Golden Rule. I don’t want to be lied to; I want you to tell me the truth, and I will try to tell it to you.
This is a good little book, and fun to read. I think she just may succeed in showing you that it is also (at least sometimes) fun to write. Write for your children or your family or your friends. Take on small projects (without thought of publication) and finish them. And then read some more.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I want to talk to you this morning about Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. It is quite fitting that this excellent novel begins with a quote from Jane Austin's Northanger Abby, since McEwan comes about as close as anyone I can think of to the emotionally and psychologically rich prose of Austin. I can't tell you how much it surprises me to say that, since one of the main reasons I so seldom read male authors is that I see a kind of emotional paucity in their writing. Not only does McEwan capture the rich emotional life of a family, he writes very convincingly through the eyes of a thirteen year old girl, Briony, and of her twenty year old sister Cecilia. Indeed, the novel opens with Briony's view of her extended family and her worries about the production of her just finished play, and I found myself immediately hoping that the entire novel would be written through her eyes. A wonderfully clever and perceptive child, but for this reader at least, an utterly convincing voice; I could hear her and picture her from the very first pages.

In the early pages it seemed this would simply be a story about family life, the intellectual and philosophical awakenings of a young intellectual, and her struggle both to remain a child and to be accepted into the adult world. And certainly that is a strand in the novel, but it turns out to be about so much more. We readers are introduced next to Cecila, the older sister, having just returned from a comparatively new women's version of Cambridge, still more finishing school than the more intellectually rich and profession-directed men's schools, but nevertheless a new-age woman-one who reads and thinks and wonders and smokes in public. Again, the moment I saw the world through Ceclia's eyes, I hoped that she would remain a pivotal character. The introduction to the mother, Emily, is also complex and seductive, and it is not until Robbie Turner is introduced that we get a male's-eye view of the household. Robbie is the son of a servant, but one who has been given special status from childhood, his education paid for by the family, and who is situated between two worlds, neither of which he can quite claim as his own.

The novel begins in England in 1935, and though in many ways it remains simply a kind of morality tale about the complex relations within this one family, it is also a story about the horrors of war. The lovely, sweet, innocent beginning of this book does not at all prepare the reader for either the horrible mistake that catapults the family into inflexible divisions nor for the intensely descriptive and awful scenes of a Europe at war. Book two opens with Robbie in the French countryside, both British and French troops on full and desperate retreat from the advancing German armies. The war scenes, so unlike the glorified and utterly fictionalized Hollywood versions of World War II, are as wrenching and difficult to plow through as any descriptions of war I can remember. McEwan captures the chaos and absurdity of war, the stench and filth, blood and guts of it in a way that I think we very much need to see right now as so many suffer from an even more absurd war waged for so much less good cause. It was as hard to turn the pages, to keep reading this part of the novel, as it was delightful to read Book I, and if McEwan succeeds in giving a women's eye view of the world in his introduction, he certainly succeeds in giving a man's-eye view in Book II.

What I have not even mentioned yet is the incident that weaves this tale together, connecting the thirteen year old Briony at its beginning with the seventy-something successful author at its end. And I'm not going to say much about it; you will have to discover the mystery for yourselves. Suffice it to say that McEwan understands very well how so much of what we call perception of the world is really simply seeing what we are prepared to see, what in some sense we want to see. And how one fairly simple miss-perception, one mostly unintentional falsehood, can alter the lives of so many so irrevocably. Existentialist writers are quick to remind us how our acts transcend us and that we are (in some deep sense) responsible for the unforeseen consequences as for the foreseen. Good intentions are not the same as good acts, and apparently simply mistakes, simple misrepresentations, can have horrific consequences. Briony spends a lifetime living with the consequences of one well-intentioned miss-seeing, one that breaks apart a family and sets in motion a series of events all of which so completely transcend the moment.

But instead of revealing anymore to you potential readers, let me quote just one passage from early in the book, one that captures so much about the awakening of self, about the power of imagination, and about transitioning from child to adult, indeed, one that describes in such a lovely way the birth of a philosopher. Briony has just abandoned her role as playwright, given up on the her hopeless cousins as actors and taken out her frustrations by beating down nettles with a stick-the nettles representing all those around her who have frustrated her ambitions, her grand plans, each nettle representing some flesh-and-blood figure, and only slowly does she return to the real world.
She was becoming a solitary girl swiping nettles with a stick, and at last she stopped and tossed it toward the trees and looked around her.

The cost of oblivious daydreaming was always this moment of return, the realignment with what had been before and now seemed a little worse. Her reverie, once rich in plausible details, had become a passing silliness before the hard mass of the actual. It was difficult to come back. Come back, her sister used to whisper when she woke her from a bad dream. Briony had lost her godly power of creation, but it was only at this moment of return that the loss became evident; part off a daydream's enticement was the illusion that she was helpless before its logic: forced by international rivalry to compete at the highest level among the world's finest and to accept the challenges that came with preeminence in her field-her field of nettle slashing-driven to push beyond her limits to assuage the roaring crowd, and to be the best, and, most importantly, unique. But of course, it had all been her-by her and about her-and now she was back in the world, not one she could make, but the one that had made her, and she felt herself shrinking under the early evening sky ... In a spirit of mutinous resistance, ... she decided she would stay there and wait until something significant happened to her. This was the challenge she was putting to existence-she would not stir, not for dinner, not even for her mother calling her in. She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her fantasies, rose to her challenge, and dispelled her insignificance.
I remember such heroic moments, such not so childish frustrations. I think McEwan will return you to your childhood, and he will also teach you the meaning of atonement.