Books, Essay, Reviews

Anne Lamott On Writing

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some instructions on writing and life is among my favourite books on writing. It’s both practical and profound, light- reading, witty, and humorous at the same time. Published in 1994, this book still has a lot to offer to anyone with a creative pursuit and I consider it as timeless and a valuable piece of written words, exhibited rationally.

Lamott starts on considering writing as a sense making mechanism:

One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.

Lamott, throughout the book take into consideration that who ever reading this book is a part of her class or a workshop and pursue this type of narrative throughout the book, till she has dismissed the class. She begins her class by advising her students on where to focus when starting to write:

‘I don’t even know where to start,’ one will wail.

Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.

[…]

Start by writing down every single thing you can remember from your first few years in school. Start with kindergarten. Try to get the words and memories down as they occur to you. Don’t worry if what you write is no good, because no one is going to see it. move on first grade, to second, to third.

[…]

Write down everything you can remember about every birthday or Christmas or Seder, or Easter or whatever, every relative who was there. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul.

[…]

Scratch around for details: what people ate, listened to, wore—

But the question arises here is that, how to do it? Well, Lamott has an answer for that:

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.

According to her, writing is as an important task, as reading books and she also emphasis on how an author grabs reader’s attention:

For some of us, 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, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. 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. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.

She urges a writer to focus only on writing for the first time and says there are always second and third drafts that take care of the fix-ups and the amendments:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something— anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Following that, she dismisses the idea of perfectionism. In this bird-by-bird approach to writing, there is no room for 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.

[…]

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow 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.

Source:asamariabradley.com

She describes the correlation among the developing the plot according to the character’s needs:

Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.

She then reveals why a set of good dialogue between two characters and how to master the art of shaping a set of dialogue:

Good dialogue is such a pleasure to come across while reading, a complete change of pace from description and exposition and all that writing. Suddenly people are talking, and we find ourselves clipping along. And we have all the pleasures of voyeurism because the characters don’t know we are listening. We get to feel privy to their inner workings without having to spend too much time listening to them think.

[…]

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. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, mouth your dialogue. This is something you have to practice, doing it over and over and over. Then when you’re out in the world—that is, not at your desk—and you hear people talking, you’ll find yourself editing their dialogue, playing with it, seeing in your mind’s eye what it would look like on the page. You 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. If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days—listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. 

Most importantly, she tells us to stay strong, and believe in ourselves and developing self-confidence within us:

You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place.

[…]

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.

[…]

If you stop trying to control your mind so much, you’ll have intuitive hunches about what this or that character is all about. It is hard to stop controlling, but you can do it. If your character suddenly pulls a half-eaten carrot out of her pocket, let her. Later you can ask yourself if this rings true. Train yourself to hear that small inner voice. Most people’s intuitions are drowned out by folk sayings. We have a moment of real feeling or insight, and then we come up with a folk saying that captures the insight in a kind of wash. The intuition may be real and ripe, fresh with possibilities, but the folk saying is guaranteed to be a cliché, stale and self-contained. 

At last, she tells the importance of being a writer and why this world will never run out of writers:

The society to which we belong seems to be dying to is already dead. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but clearly the dark side is rising. Things could not have been more odd and frightening in the Middle Ages. But the tradition of artists will continue no matter what form society takes. And this is another reason to write: 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.”

Bird by Bird is must read and absolutely recommended!

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16 thoughts on “Anne Lamott On Writing”

  1. I love the review, especially with all your broken-out quotes. This book has been on my self forever; I’ve been meaning to pick it up and read it after finishing Stephen King’s On Writing. I guess that’s how you read, too–bird by bird.

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  2. When I was teaching Creative Writing at the county college, nearly all the students already assumed they could write science fiction and didn’t need any lessons… which made me wonder why they signed up for the course in the first place. Why does almost everybody assume they can write science fiction? Is it really that easy?

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    1. I don’t Lee, but what I have read science fiction, most of the times it is horrible. Just because it is related to some franchise and even non readers care to read them, doesn’t make them good books. I feel, irrespective of the genre, one should judge a book and write a book accordingly. What do you think?

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      1. On the quality scale, science fiction and fantasy are definitely down at the bottom while mystery is at the time. It’s very unusual to find a poorly-written, silly mystery. I think the readers just won’t stand for it. But with SF, fantasy, romance–well, anything goes.

        It’s true that there is some high-quality writing in science fiction, but for some reason that doesn’t seem important to readers. And there is some fantasy so awful, you can read it aloud and dry up ponds.

        One factor in play is that the demand for SF and fantasy is so high (people want escape fiction) that there are nowhere near enough high-quality books to supply it. So the publishers publish low-quality books and readers settle for it.

        I have also formed the opinion that readers of mysteries are in general just a lot more intelligent than readers of fantasy and science fiction.

        Which, being a fantasy writer myself, I probably shouldn’t have said.

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      2. Hahaha I like that, ‘read it aloud and dry up ponds.’ I think being a reader one should try everything. But one thing I have observed myself being an avid mystery reader is that one’s sense of observation becomes more clear and good. Noticing the usual things, small things and all that stuff.

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  3. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true.

    Amen!

    Liked by 1 person

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