I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book on writing. It’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. It’s not a new book; it was published in 1994, but I had never seen it. The reason I started reading it is that my younger daughter, Julia, was assigned it for a fiction-writing workshop. I browsed through the book like a good dad and was immediately hooked. It’s not so much about the mechanics of writing or getting published—though it offers plenty of good advice—as it is about the experience and the mindset of writing, and of living. It’s hilarious, it’s heartfelt, it touches on every insecure nerve a writer has ever felt, and it’s encouraging. (I, feeling blocked, picked up an Amazon-reader-recommended book on writer’s block at the same time, and found that I kept picking up Bird by Bird instead.) Some excerpts:
The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little.
E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.
Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t—and, in fact, you’re not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing. First you just point at what has your attention and take the picture… The film emerges from the camera with a grayish green murkiness that gradually becomes clearer and clearer, and finally you see the husband and wife holding their baby with two children standing beside them. And at first it all seems very sweet, but then the shadows begin to appear, and then you start to see the animal tragedy, the baboons bearing their teeth. And then you see a flash of bright red flowers…that you didn’t even know were in the picture when you took it, and these flowers evoke a time or a memory that moves you mysteriously. And finally, as the portrait come into focus, you begin to notice all the props surrounding these people, and you begin to understand how props define us and comfort us, and show us what we value and what we need, and who we think we are.
Of all the voices you’ll hear on KFKD [the voices in your head], the most difficult to subdue may be that of jealousy. Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you.
If you have any interest in writing, whether you’re a beginner or a pro, I highly recommend it.