5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD
It seems like most aspiring writers see publishing like an engaged couple sees marriage. Somehow we believe that one moment, one promise, one publication will automatically change our lives, forgetting that a life is changed through small, daily decisions. In her step-by-step writing guide Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott swings a wrecking ball at any misconceptions we may have about writing. Lamott asserts that the only way to be a writer is to write consistently, to commit to it and love it; publication will not save you from the hard days or self doubt.
If you are a committed writer, you will appreciate Bird by Bird as it explores what it really takes to be a writer, how to develop your craft, what being a writer really means, and how to overcome what keeps you from writing.
Let’s see what Anne Lamott wants to share with us today.
NOTE: This book is summarized in a Q&A format; all answers are directly from Anne Lamott (not lil’ ol’ me).
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
The sort of person that often becomes a writer is one who thinks differently than his peers, who may have had serious conversations with grownups, who as a young person, like me, accepted being alone quite a lot. Throughout my childhood I believed that what I thought about was different from what other kids through about. It was not necessarily more profound, but there was a struggle going on inside me to find some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in my head. I read more than other kids; I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge. And there was a moment during my junior year in high school when I began to believe that I could do what other writers were doing. I came to believe that I might be able to put a pencil in my hand and make something magical happen.
What do you want aspiring writers to know about the profession?
I want them to know what it will be like for me at the desk the next morning when I sit down to work, with a few ideas and a lot of blank paper, with hideous conceit and low self-esteem in equal measure, fingers poised on the keyboard. They’ll want to be really good right off, and they may not be, but they might be good someday if they just keep the faith and keep practicing. And they may even go from wanting to have written something to just wanting to be writing, wanting to be working on something, like they’d want to be playing piano or tennis, because writing brings with it so much joy, so much challenge. It is work and play together. When they are working on their books or stories, their heads will spin with ideas and invention. They’ll see the world through new eyes. They will have days at the desk of frantic boredom, of angry hopelessness, of wanting to quit forever, and there will be days when it feels like they have caught and are riding a wave. Sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time.
Why are books important to you?
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. 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. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life—wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat.
How do you define good writing?
Good writing is about telling the truth. A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. 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. If you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.
Sometimes the act of starting to write can be overwhelming for new writers. Where should aspiring writers start?
Start with your childhood. Try to get the words and memories down as they occur to you. Remember that you own what happened to you. Try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. You clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. As the story begins to materialize, you are learning what you aren’t writing, and this is helping you to find out what you are writing.
How do you overcome the anxiety writers often experience when facing an overwhelming project?
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. My father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” As the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop. I remember to pick up the one-inch picture frame and to figure out a one-inch piece of my story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange. “Just take it bird by bird.”
How do you overcome the barrier of perfectionism?
The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
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. 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. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here—and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.
What helps you overcome writer’s block?
I think that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty. This emptiness can destroy some writers, as do the shame and frustration that go with it. The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept that you are not in a productive creative period, you free yourself to begin filling up again. Do your three hundred words, and then go for a walk. Otherwise you’ll want to sit there and try to contribute, and this will only get in the way. Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck.
How do you craft great characters?
Get to know your characters as well as you can, let there be something at stake, and then let the chips fall where they may. Whatever your characters do or say will be born out of who they are, so you need to set out to get to know each one as well as possible. One way to do this is to [base them on] different facets of your personality [or] on someone you know. Go into each of these people and try to capture how each one feels, thinks, talks, survives. See if you can take dictation from them as they tell you who they think they are and what life has been like lately. One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t.
When you write about your characters, we want to know all about their leaves and colors and growth. But we also want to know who they are when stripped of the surface. So if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t.
What makes a great narrator?
Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal. Now, a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable. I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I. They shouldn’t be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.
What makes a character or narrator likable?
The acknowledgement that in the midst of ourselves there is still a good part that hasn’t been corrupted and destroyed, that we can tap into and reclaim, is most reassuring. When a more or less ordinary character, someone who is both kind and self-serving, somehow finds that place within where he or she is still capable of courage and goodness, we get to see something true that we long for. We like certain characters because they internalize some decency in the world that makes them able to take a risk or make a sacrifice for someone else. They let us see that there is in fact some sort of moral compass still at work here, and that we, too, could travel by this compass if we so choose. This is what helps us connect with your characters and your book.
How can writers craft a great plot?
Plot grows out of character. Characters should not serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up. I say don’t worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are, and be involved in their lives, and keep asking yourself, Now what happens? Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake. Find a way to express this discovery in action, and then let your people set about finding or holding onto or defending whatever it is. Then you can take them from good to bad and back again, or from bad to good, or from lost to found. But something must be at stake or you will have no tension and your readers will not turn the pages.
Alice Adams’s short story formula [can help you structure your plot around your characters]: ABDCE
Action: compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more
Background: let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what was going on before the opening of the story
Development: develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot—the drama, the actions, the tension—will grow out of that.
Climax: everything comes together after which things are different for the main characters in some real way.
Ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?
How can a writer craft good dialogue?
Bad dialogue [is] simply put down word by word; read out loud, it has no flow, no sense of the character’s rhythm. Good dialogue [lets us] feel privy to their inner workings without having to spend too much time listening to them think. Good dialogue gives us the sense that we are eavesdropping, that the author is not getting in the way. Thus, good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is not said.
There are a number of things that help when you sit down to write dialogue. First of all, sound your words—read them out loud. Listen to how people really talk, and then learn little by little to take someone’s five-minute speech and make it one sentence, without losing anything. You must learn about people from people, not from what you read. Your reading should confirm what you’ve observed in the world. Second, remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. You need to trust yourself to hear what they are saying over what you are saying.
How do you know when you’re done?
What happens is that you’ve gone over and over something so many times, and you’ve weeded and pruned and rewritten, and the person who reads your work for you has given you great suggestions that you have mostly taken—and then finally something inside you just says it’s time to get on to the next thing. Of course, there will always be more you could do, but you have to remind yourself that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. Even though you know that your manuscript is not perfect and you’d hoped for so much more, but there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and it’s the very best you can do for now—well? I think this means that you are done.
What does being a writer really mean?
This business of being a writer is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?
Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on. Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that—what is. As we live, we begin to discover what helps in life and what hurts, and our characters act this out dramatically.
To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. Writing involves seeing people suffer and finding some meaning therein. Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others. A writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on. A writer makes a few small things suddenly clear, things to which we can cling, and this makes us feel like part of the solution. What your giving can do is to help your readers be braver, be better than they are, be open to the world again.
The writer’s job is to see what’s behind [the closed door], to expose the unexposed, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words. The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms that we were told not to go in to. People need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion—not to look around and say, “Look at yourselves, you idiots!,” but to say, “This is who we are.” When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are. What gets exposed is not people’s baseness but their humanity. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
What gives you confidence as a writer?
When we listened to our intuition when we were small and then told the grown-ups what we believed to be true, we were often either corrected, ridiculed, or punished. So you may have gotten into the habit of doubting the vice that was telling you quite clearly what was really going on. It is essential that you get it back. Everything you need is in your head and memories, in all that your sense provide, in all that you’ve seen and thought and absorbed. You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side, or saying a small prayer—please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written.
What publishing advice do you have for writers?
Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer. If you kind of want to write, but you really want to be published, you’ll never get to where you want to be.
The fact of publication does bring you a quiet joy. But eventually you have to sit down like every other writer and face the blank page. You are going to have to give and give and give, or there's no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. You helped bring your work into being, and every day you have to feed it, help it stay well, give it advice and love it when it ignores you. Like the coach on Cool Runnings says, “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.”
My 5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways are:
“Just take it bird by bird” and let yourself write really shitty first drafts.
Writing is about living fully by exposing the unexposed, diving into the dark places inside yourself, and being brave enough to care. Only then can writers act as a mirror that reflects what it means to be human.
Crafting good dialogue is about learning to take someone’s five-minute speech and make it one sentence, without losing anything.
Writing can help you identify what your story and characters aren’t and then you can finally identify what they are; worry more about the characters than the plot.
If your focus is on being published more than consistently writing, you won’t be able to give what is required to be a writer.
What did you take away from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? Share what impacted you in the comments below.
Keep freeing that writer,