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.

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