On page xxx of her forward to Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, author Anne Lamott quips: “Most of [my writer friends] go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested.” Lamott writes a funny, honest account of the writer’s ups and downs in her guidebook, revealing through her example how we can write with authenticity, enjoyment, and deep engagement. I found three aspects of Lamott’s advice particularly resonated with me: surrendering control, cultivating good writing habits, and giving passionately through our writing. Through these techniques we discover true authenticity and the best possible ways to reach our audiences as we come to understand why the facial expressions she described above are actually those of a person in not only highest anguish, but also deepest ecstasy.
First Lamott urges us to surrender control: face a big project one piece at a time, let our characters do the driving, and remember we are just mediums through which the story must flow. “All I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame (17),” Lamott shares with us. She uses this to defeat writer’s block and reluctance. Bit by bit her novels put themselves together. She quotes E. L. Doctorow: “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 (18).” I agree, the freedom of sitting down and writing something, anything, is what really keeps me going. Especially when I know I’m not allowed to get up until I’ve reached my word count. Lamott states writing needs to breathe and move and we need to be careful not to throttle it with perfectionism (29). I too believe relaxing as a writer and letting the story happen to characters creates the most enjoyable writing experience for the author. For me, plot stems from character, and Lamott reminds us we must surrender to that. “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 (45).” She supports that statement with two of my favorite quotes on character: “Honey, leave him lay where Jesus flang him (46)” and “[characters] need me to write [their story] down for them because their handwriting is so bad (61).” She mentions the noise we have inside our heads that keeps us from writing (radio station KFKD) and reminds us to get out of our own way and eavesdrop on what the characters are saying and doing (116). “We need to align ourselves with the river of the story, the river of the unconscious, of memory and sensibility, of our character’s lives, which can then pour through us, the straw (121).” It is comforting to remember that I’m not the owner of this story. The story is coming from somewhere else, and I’m just a conduit.
Lamott’s advice on good writing habits resonated with me also. She recommends we keep notes on life, form daily writing goals so we complete our stories and revisions, and join groups of other writers for support. Firstly, she is never found without something to write on. I think this is great advice. For both me and Lamott, not writing something down is the best way for it to disappear forever. Like her, the simple act of writing something down gives me a 50/50 chance to remember it without prompting (131). At the beginning of each semester I give my students palm-sized pocket notebooks to help them observe life. I need to remember to practice this too—sometimes I’m having so much fun observing and imagining I forget to record what I’ve learned about my characters and plot. However, observing, imagining, and recording doesn’t finish stories. Lamott reminds us we should write every day (151) at least 300 words (147, 180). I rarely struggle with writer’s block, but scheduling time for writing and sticking to it gets tricky. Daily word count goals have worked well for me in the past. I get disappointed in myself if I don’t reach a certain amount in a day. Lamott’s 300 is very doable. I hope sustain 2,000 words daily in the future, but I’ll have to see how my process develops. I’m trying to slow down, examine craft, and comb through my prose carefully. I’ve been doing that on a story I started at Stonecoast Summer 2011, and things are moving at a snail’s pace, just as they used to when I was getting my first grad degree. I had trouble finishing stories back then, and Lamott reminds us that we have to stay the course and drive through to the finish if we’re going to get anywhere (180). I’m close to overcoming that challenge for myself, my next big challenge will be facing novel revision and surviving it. Her revision story is inspiring—telling the story out loud to her editor and then writing a detailed plot treatment of 500-1000 words describing each chapter—I’d like to try that with my current revision. She says she created an exact recipe for writing the next version (85-92). I need others to read my work so I can make it better, even though I’m shy about putting my work out there. I was feeling pretty sad after my first Stonecoast workshop—I so wanted to impress Liz Hand and Jim Kelly, and I felt my work didn’t do that. That night, at dinner, my fortune cookie read: “Failure is feedback. And feedback is the breakfast of champions.” The fortune cookie and Lamott reminds me that the whole goal of sharing is to improve. Just by “putting it out into the universe” you’re taking steps toward lifelong positive change (158). Joining National Novel Writing Month was one of the best things for me as a writer. Social writing helps me generate words, keeps me doing prompts and exercises, and gets the work done. Critique groups are what helps me polish my work, if I can get past my block toward revision. As I mentioned above, surrendering to my characters and committing myself to good writerly habits are my new strategies for getting over this problem I’m having with revision.
The final point that resonated with me in Lamott’s Bird by Bird was this. Give through your novel—write what you care passionately about (103-130), write as a present to someone else (183, 195), and write because writing is fun (208). I think I lose sight of these passions because I’m trying so hard to make my novel “good” that I choke out my voice. Writing great science fiction is important to me, and trying to reach that ideal is getting in the way of me discovering what I feel passionately about. Like Firefly, I want to tell the story of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. My characters may not be ordinary enough, or the situation may not be one that can be readily applied allegorically to everyday life, and that may be why I’m having trouble connecting to my current revision project. Lamott speaks of a novel as unfolding the truth in layers, and that reality is unforgivingly complex (104). If I want to find a way to connect to my deepest passions, I need to rejoice in my characters, because through my joy, my readers will find theirs. “In formula fiction, evil wins out until the very end, and then against all odds goodness prevails and the hero gets to kiss the girl with the big bosoms (106).” Heck yeah, that’s what I’m in this game for! But I don’t think this kind of novel and the ones Lamott is trying to write are mutually exclusive. When an ordinary character finds a way to tap into her inner courage and goodness and in doing so, survival becomes a secondary goal, then you’ve uncovered real drama. What is more important to you than being alive? If you can discover the passion for that in your character, you’re set. Discovering personal passion is one thing, but we also must give through our novels if we truly wish to connect with our audience. “We are all in danger now and have a new everything to face, and there is no point in gathering an audience and demanding its attention unless you have something to say that is important and constructive (108).” So, my primary question becomes: “What does my novel have to contribute?” I think this is a good question, and one that will help me love my novel as a gift to others, not just as another escapist adventure. Honestly, the best escapes are when we can transcend ourselves and feel as though we’ve learned something. Finally, Lamott reminds me that publication is not the sole reason to write. I write for the sheer joy of it, daily discovery, and escape from self into something bigger. “You figure out that the real payoff is the writing itself, that a day when you have gotten your work done is a good day, that total dedication is the point (215).” She reminds us that publication has its own ups and downs and aftermaths and should not be a prop for self esteem. “Being enough was going to have to be an inside job (220).” I think the self-esteem spiral is one that could affect me strongly in particular, and I’m thankful to have Lamott to guide me. Passion, kindness to others, and joy. Is that more important than simply living for me? Yes, it is.
Through surrendering control, cultivating good writing habits, and giving passionately through our writing, I believe we can approach true authenticity and connect deeply with our readers’ lives. As we surrender to the force of the story and allow our characters to tell us where to go; commit to daily good writing habits and join with others attempting the same ill-advised lifestyle; and most importantly, find a way to passionately connect with the joy and love we have to give the world, we forge a bond between us and other people. I think the layers that Lamott discusses could be likened to the seven stages of intimacy. Your reader isn’t falling in love with you, or even your characters (well, maybe a little). She’s falling in love with the idea behind your work, the passion in it, and the tiny guiding light you’re shining to try and show her one small thing you’ve understood about this game we call life. As Mike Kimball says, “we are the ones who walk through the fire.” We feel all the emotions of our characters, and, like lab dogs, are haunted, abused, and surprised by the experience. We may even emerge mysteriously fragrant. This is okay. All is as it should be.