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.

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