Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sleeping with Anne Lamott

Several months ago, my brother John and I got into a conversation about writing process and Anne Lamott’s work on the subject of writing process. John happens to be writing a novel and is actually the writer-friend referred to in this earlier post.

Out of that conversation came the post I just linked to and also a review of Lamott’s Bird by Bird, in the category Revisiting a Classic, at Readworthy Books.

Below, the conversation continues, as I find good reason to recommend Lamott’s Hard Laughter.

Janet to John

I did not suggest the Anne Lamott chapter on plot treatment [in Bird by Bird] with the intention to send you off in any particular direction. Just thought a pause to plan might help -- an outline, a treatment, whatever.

With the caveat that I've never prepared a novel-length narrative, I do think Lamott gives a pretty complete description of what a 'treatment' is, as she uses the concept. (That is, a chapter by chapter paragraph-style outline, noting 'where' the characters are at the beginning, what happens in the chapter, and where they are at the end.) But that is not to promote that particular concept.

In advertising, we used to talk about ‘a treatment.’ And sometimes what we saw resembled -- this worried me in earlier conversations -- a writer trying to talk the story into existence, ala your Joplin-writer-friend’s praise for what you had NOT done. So...

I have known writers -- listened to narrative writers talk about their process -- who say they start with 'just a feeling, a sense, a character and no idea where the story will go' and others who always know the end as they begin. I've never had the privilege to hear any of my personal heroes talk about this and I admit, the 'I know the end' types I've heard have tended to be category fiction writers. Dilemma. I don't much care about category fiction beyond the genius who created the category! But you are working on mainstream fiction with some aspirations to literature...

On the other hand, having 'listened' to people like Lamott and Cameron, who --notwithstanding Lamott's Plot Treatment chapter -- clearly advocate starting anywhere and following your characters' lead, I decided to look at their fiction results.

The first Lamott novel I could get my hands on was Rosie, which I found highly forgettable except for a couple of violations of my personal pet peeves: using a novelist as an important character and verbal cliques. I've just started to read a second Lamott novel, which happens to actually be her first novel, Hard Laughter. I am only a few pages in but already am much more impressed, even though there are writers who are important characters. (The key writer is dying. I guess that is a good thing – from the point of view of creating a story. Yikes!!)

In between the two Lamott pieces, I read Cameron's Mozart's Ghost. (I do not know where this piece fits in her body of work.) This piece is very imaginative. If I were asked to rank Lamott's Rosie against Cameron's Ghost, the latter wins. But in the absence of a personal interest, I probably would not recommend either of them to anyone.

Then again, I wouldn't likely recommend any Mary Higgins Clark, who I heard say she always knows the end point when she starts.

So, who knows what all that means!

I am impressed and excited by the developments you have described in your own novel. Whether you decided to outline or 'plot-treat' the story arc -- or just wade on -- I am sure you are going to get there. Maybe it doesn't matter whether the route is more or less direct.

Janet to John

Since I placed Lamont's Rosie behind Cameron's Mozart's Ghost, I feel it is only fair to mention -- I did find a quote in Rosie worth holding onto and perhaps sharing and there was nothing like that in Ghost. Specifically:

“You’ve just got to remember sometime you’ll be on an upswing, everything’s coming up roses, and sometimes you’ll be on a downswing, a broken heart or depression, but although you never believe it at the time, you’ll start an upswing again.” From Rosie, by Anne Lamont

While hardly a unique observation, it's a good idea to revisit often.

John to Janet

I've never read Rosie and after your remarks I probably won't. I think I've
read four books by Lamott: Bird By Bird, Hard Laughter, Operating Instructions, and Crooked Little Heart. (She produces great titles, certainly.)

The main character in Crooked Little Heart is named Rosie. I wonder if this is a younger or older version of the main character in Rosie? Crooked Little Heart is, by far, my favorite Lamott book, but I really like coming of age novels and excellent portrayals of coming of age kids.

I'm particularly fond of coming of age books about girls. Elizabeth Berg's
Durable Goods is a girl's coming of age book; it's probably nowhere near great literature, but I just love it. I've given it as a gift several times.

That was really all to say, I would recommend Crooked Little Heart, and I'd be VERY INTERESTED in knowing your reactions to it.

Janet to John

The last time we talked about Anne Lamott's work, I had just read a few pages of Hard Laughter and you were recommending Crooked Little Heart.

I have finished Hard Laughter and would recommend it without reservation. Here are my journal notes from the morning after I finished it.

Recently I’ve a spat of wee-hour sleep disruptions. Again last night, a physical frisson, a body buzz like a small electric shock, woke me. A momentary distress is made more distressful by the growing knowledge that the sensation augers a bout of late-night wakefulness.

I reached for my tiny reading light and the novel on top of my Chinese herb cabinet turned bedside table. It’s an Anne Lamott novel I’ve discovered helps me ease back to sleep. Not, however, what that sounds like.

It is not boring. Rather, it engages me at exactly the right distance: familiar but not personal. Reading it is pleasantly effortless. The vocabulary, period and culture are known. The experiences are familiar enough, yet comfortably distant from my own particular present difficulties.

Having completed Hard Laughter, I quickly located a copy of Crooked Little Heart. After all, this waking up at 3 a.m. thing could continue!

Read a few pages and can tell you now that the Rosie character in CLH is the same girl, a few years later, who lends her name to the title of the earlier novel.

Reactions will be forthcoming.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Who do you Follow? Who do you 'Friend'? -- II

The mysteries of who follows you on Twitter cannot necessarily be solved by simply observing your own behavior.

Take my behavior.

I joined Twitter because I heard second or third hand I could use it to stalk my son. Oh, no, wait ... I could follow some of my kids and a handful of their friends and keep some sense of what was going on in their lives. Some sense.

Once on, I found a few other people I knew who I thought would be interesting to follow. Friends, colleagues, from my RL. And a couple of public, newsfeed-type Twitter users.

At one early point, I was notified that Barack Obama was following me. With a 'yay, sure', I reciprocated and followed him and then a bunch of other candidates for various offices. (With those particular elections long over, I've removed all of them, although -- pausing to check here -- Obama still appears to be following me. (hahaha))

In the ancient days when I joined Twitter, about 12 or 13 months ago, your user's "Home" page included a button called "Everyone" which took you to the public timeline and let you watch the entire Twitter universe float along. That button is gone and now if you want to watch that amazing tide, you have to really care and know what you are looking for. But back then, watching the public timeline would occasionally reveal someone worth following. I have a couple of people I still follow because I noticed the quality of their tweets while watching the random roll. (Janet L, Scott K -- that would be you.)

There's more, but I'm way off point.

Nothing about what I've done begins to explain the particular people who show up following me from time to time. It tooks me several months -- and a kind fellow user who deigned to answer my question -- before I figured this out. When I asked Carla (name changed to honor privacy) how she happened to start following me, she repsonded: "Auto (I've lost background Mr Tweet?) key words (philanthropy, strategic planning, etc). Not work well unfollowing often." Then I understood; I'd made some comment about poverty or charity and her bot had automatically picked me out as someone with interests in common.

In Carla's case, I don't know if we've been able to share anything useful, but at least we really do share some interests. She is not hoping to sell me something.

This week's new crop of followers are much more typical. A friend and I shared some tweetie observations that included words like 'exercise' 'weight loss' -- stuff like that. So now I have some new followers who I bet hope I'll give a follow back and buy their exercise or weight loss programs or products. Not happenin'. Not even ...

But they do make my follower numbers look better, so I guess that's something.

Who Do You Follow? Who Do You 'Friend'?

and other mysteries ...

Yesterday my Facebook page offered a Friend suggestion that startled me. The name was familiar -- the husband of someone I know fairly well who is about a half-generation older than me. And, BTW, I am old!! Particularly around Facebook and Twitter.

So some ol' guy had joined Facebook.

But how the hell did Facebook have a clue we might know each other? If you have mutual FB Friends, they tell you that right away -- and we didn't. If you went to the same high school or college, particular about the same time (and your profile says so), FB knows. And they tell you THAT.

But -- I'll call him Chet -- Chet and I didn't.

In fact, I couldn't think of anything we had in common that would be captured in a FB profile.

I am fast to accept FB Friend requests from people whose names I recognize -- a little slower to accept from names I don't know but sometimes I even accept those. But I am really slow to REQUEST a Friend unless I do actually know the person in real life at least well enough to think the person will remember how we know each other, that we know each other.

I don't, for example, ask my cousins' kids to be my Facebook friends if the last time I saw the cousin was 42 years ago and I've never met the kid!

I wasn't so sure that Chet would recognize me. Or wish to be my FB Friend.

But I had to know how FB made the connection. Was it simply that we were both in the Chicago network? That's a stretch. Of course, sometimes I think that is enough of a connection for Facebook to take a stab at it.

So, I requested Chet's FB Friendship, reminding him of how we know each other. He accepted. And I got to look at his Facebook page and profile.


The email address he listed for Facebook is shared with his wife and appears in my email contact list.

But there is something spooky about that. A long time ago when I joined Facebook, I did allow Facebook to search my email contact list for matches.

But it only now occurs to me FB retained that info and is using it. Yikes!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Back to Bird -- Reading or Rereading

Not long ago, I was involved in a poetry event. The leader was demonstrating the way a particular poem evolved from good to better to outstanding. He finished up by quoting a writer friend of his: "It's all about the process."

A day or two later, a writer friend of my own said something about his process. When I whined -- just slightly -- that I didn't 'get' all this process talk, he asked if I'd read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.

I thought I probably had, but, not certain and not finding it in my own considerable library, I headed over to the new Half Price Books in my neighborhood and picked up a copy. Indeed, as I read or re-read, some parts of the book were completely familiar while other parts seemed altogether new. I expect certain chapters were published as excerpts in some magazine I read or passed out in a class somewhere.

On the familiar hand, Lamott's advice about "shitty first drafts" has been shared widely, was and continues to be about the most useful advice a writer can encounter. Paraphrasing in brief: write without concern about the quality; it's a draft, you don't have to share it until you are happy with the result.

But parts that were new were recognizable the way your own experience is recognizable. She talks about how writing makes your own life feel bigger, richer. I remember discovering that for myself in my early teens when a treasured friend moved away. Writing letters to her, just telling her about the ordinary things her old friends were up to, helped me see the golden glow of all those wonderful, adolescent dramas. Keeping a diary had a similar effect on my perceptions.

Much later in the book, Lamott comments that writing takes you out of yourself, which just might be the defining requirement for achieving happiness. These two ideas almost seem to contradict each other. Writing can make your own life seem bigger, more dramatic or meaningful; yet writing can get you out of yourself. It’s interesting to think about that.

Although Lamott does not make a distinction between creative and expository writing, much of what she has to say is specific to fiction or narrative. When her topic is character, setting, dialogue or plot, the subject is storytelling. But writer’s block and all manner of insecurity and doubt can assail both the novelist and the journalist. And Lamott is comedic and masterful on these writerly universals.

I don't recall getting this from Anne Lamott, but she advocates ‘tiny assignments’ and giving myself very tiny 'assignments' works for me. "Write a possible opening paragraph." "Write a few sentences about intuition.” “Work out transitions between drafted paragraphs.” I mean, I can focus down to just getting one sentence the way I want it. It won't make you a fast or prolific writer, but it can keep you writing. This, at times, is enough.

So, yes, I’ve read and reread Anne Lamott’s 15-year-old classic, Bird by Bird and gone on to recommend it far and wide: Readworthy Books, Revisiting a Classic.