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Friday, January 4, 2013

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



Write down your life. Take notes. Say it in a letter. Share your uniqueness in an interesting way. Why do this? Well, because, it’s important, it’s relevant, it’s what people do—we need to connect to ourselves and our humanity, and that ultimately connects us to our spirituality. Besides that, you may end up with a story so formidable, that it can also be used for medicinal purposes to aid and abet human suffering and isolation. Your story may give us the power to transcend the obviousness and the absurdities we all face.

That’s the gist of what I got out of reading Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life. The lines of her book are beautifully written in the key of A-Minor; as Lamott discusses the numbing self-doubts, jealousies and self-loathing: “Who the hell am I to think I can write? (Lamott refers to these little nuggets as Radio Station KFKD, or K-Fucked. I know I’ve been tuned in to that station most of my life.)

And yet, Lamott’s writing transposes into A-Major; as her inspiration sings through: writers document the human condition with a courageous and creative narrative that has the power to transform and heal. Writing with passion and purpose, and not to become a “successfully published” writer, is good enough. Your voice matters.

Lamott’s words also teach us how to approach our writing, which is a personal and sometimes painful endeavor.

The personal nature of fiction writing in particular, exposes the fact that stories are character- driven. Yes, we have heard that before, but Lamott drives that fact home and insists that you, the writer, have a responsibility to the characters to let them develop and become themselves. You may begin by channeling a character. He or she starts out as aspects of you, but then develops into something completely different.

Lamott points out that the plot, dialogue and surroundings (set design) exist in order for the character to do his or her thing. “Plot grows out of character.” (p. 54)

Let that character become who it needs to be. Let your passion shine forth through the character and watch where it leads. Do not manipulate your character into something it should not be, otherwise the character will bore the reader and the story will lose its focus and its truth. And truth is the reason we write in the first place. We are seekers of truth and the readers find truth in an authentic character.

Much of Bird by Bird comes from Lamott’s gig as a writing teacher. She shares stories about her students’ expectations and pitfalls, and those of all writers in general, and she gives us her “solutions.” For example, she has a bit of a mantra that goes: short assignments, shitty first drafts. The blank page beckons, but we are too perfectionist to get a sentence down, let alone a complete work of art. It’s the old trick of putting one foot in front of the other: you know the drill, but are too stubborn, or tired or hungry or thirsty and the house needs cleaning, so maybe I’ll start writing a little later….NO! Just get one short assignment done, now.  Plan for it to suck, because it’s supposed to, and you will correct it during the rewrite. The old adage still applies:  Good writing is rewriting. Good writing is artistry. Writers are both technicians and artists; I think when I read Bird by Bird.

Lamott laments that “The best thing about being an artist, instead of a madman or someone who writes letters to the editor, is that you get to engage in satisfying work. Even if you never publish a word, you have something important to pour yourself into.” (p. 236)

It doesn't get any better than to be so engaged in the present moment, consciously and tirelessly doing the work you were born to do. That is why it is so compelling and fun to watch someone so engaged, and to finally suckle on what they produce, with great relish.

One of my favorite things about Lamott’s book is that it makes one want to write, and to write as well as one can. That kind of inspiration is like prayer. We need daily prayer and meditation; and we feel out of sorts if we do not make time for it. We need inspiration in our work in order for it to get done properly and well.

 Thank you, Anne Lamott, for your prayerful inspiration and guidance in writing and in life.

P.S. This post is both today's "short assignment" and "shitty first draft" (the edited version would dump the odd musical metaphors, and would not suckle, either.)

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