“You seem to want to write, so write.”

August 5, 2012 § 18 Comments

What are your favourite books about writing and craft? Last week, in an effort to focus and get back on track – not only with this blog but my writing-life in general – I picked up a few books on the subject, beginning with Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Lifeas it was recommended to me at least twice this year.

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. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper  and pencils and unopened books on birds,  immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then 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.'”

This sweet excerpt exemplifies the book in general, but it is also atypical. Bird by Bird is part writing instruction and practical example, part memoir and personal anecdotes. It pays particular attention to the feelings of fear and immobilization writers often face, and offers tips on dismantling the process, bit by bit, bird by bird. But it is also too much about the tears and the tantrums, the jealousies and anxieties and emotional dramas of the writing life – Lamott’s writing life, though she seems to write as if her experience is characteristic.

I didn’t like it much.

The scene between father and son at the kitchen table is one of the only successful anecdotes in the book, in terms of relating an incident back to writing and extrapolating a clear lesson from it. The majority cross the line into uncomfortable or cringeworthy over-share, which are supposed to be amusing and illuminating but I just didn’t get it.

A lot of people love and find Lamott hilariously funny and insightful but her style is not for me and I found myself skimming past the personal dramas, petty jealousies and histrionics, searching for something more concrete and instructive about how to write – and well.

Perhaps this impatience is the problem, and Lamott does address it in the book when she talks about her students who look to her for the secrets of success – or shortcuts, which is what we really mean.

Why is it that we refuse to accept the simple advice in life, are convinced things are more complicated than they really are?

“You seem to want to write,” she tells them in a final class. “So write.”

Of course, it is more complicated than that and I’m not ashamed to say that I am in need of instruction and have so much to learn: want is different than do, and how. It was frustrating, then, to slog through so many cliches and weak wisdom: “Write straight into the emotional center of things… Write towards vulnerability.” How does one do that? What does that even mean?

When I stripped away the well-worn platitudes and personal dramas, there was little I hadn’t heard before or could not be said in a short piece on the subject:

  • Write, and write often.
  • Write at approximately the same time every day: this trains your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.
  • Break things down with small assignments: start with your childhood or, smaller than that, start with your school lunch. Write down as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame.
  • Keep a lot of index cards and keep them everywhere. Everything you see and hear and come across is potential material for a story.
  • Move beyond perfectionism – it will ruin your writing and block inventiveness. Learn to accept those shitty first drafts.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Edit, edit, edit.
  • Understand that you may never be published and, if you are so lucky, it is not going to solve all of your problems and be the neat and tidy dream you imagined.
  • Write because you want to and not for any ends that just aren’t guaranteed. Write for the love and joy of it not for external success or money.

All fine advice but, for me, nothing so novel or enlightening that made the rest of the book worth reading. A better and succinct list of rules is Colson Whitehead’s ‘How To Write’ in the New York Times last week.

This may sound disrespectful – especially coming from a novice – but I find it difficult to take writing advice from someone who’s writing I don’t enjoy or appreciate. (By the by, I’m with Salon and Molly E Johnson this week: folks are too fearful of negative reviews; niceness isn’t necessarily constructive.)

Like I say, though, a lot of people love and recommend this book so, if you’re new to writing or like her style, you may well get more from it than I did. A good start – or timesaver – might be to check out some isolated quotes from the book on Goodreads: they contain the essence of her message without having to deal with the rest!

Where to go from here then? I want to read more books and meditations on the craft and would love some suggestions. I’m just settling into How to Write a Sentence, And How to Read One by Stanley Fish and I already like it so much more. Who do you take your advice from? And, perhaps more importantly, do you actually take it? Or are you like me, searching for something more complicated than the age-old adage: “You seem to want to write, so write.”

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§ 18 Responses to “You seem to want to write, so write.”

  • beatbox32 says:

    Funny timing. I just received Lamott’s book in the mail, but haven’t cracked it open yet. I’ve read quite a few ‘writing’ books over the past year – Stephen King’s On Writing, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, Plot & Structure, Characters Emotion and Viewpoint… and I have many more on the to-read list.

    I have a feeling you’re a lot like me. You want to write, but you want other people to make the mistakes so you don’t have to waste time making your own. You want to learn from them the correct way to go about writing well.

    I’m coming around to the idea that writing is so intensely personal, we really do have to make our own mistakes. Over and over until we get better. We have to feel our own pain of falling down so many times that we truly understand how great it is to walk. And then we’ll KNOW we’re doing it right.

    As you mentioned, the best advice is usually the simplest. We over-complicate. We just need to write and not stop – don’t be lazy, don’t be scared. It will take a lot of work and likely a lot of time. That’s something nobody wants to hear… I certainly don’t! But I’m learning to accept it.

    Good luck on your writing journey!!

    • I’m not sure I think there’s a correct way of writing well, and I’m certainly used to making mistakes by now! But when it comes to taking advice from writers, I suppose I find it easier to truly listen to people who’s style and voice I happen to like. Often, different writers give exactly the same advice but deliver it in a way that connects with some folks and not others. I was really aware when I was reviewing Bird by Bird that some people’s writing lives – and lives! – were changed forever by it. I certainly hope you don’t leave your copy in its packaging! Writing and reading is intensely personal, and subjective, and that’s the wonder of it all.

    • I just came across this quote that ties in perfectly with our tendency to over-complicate what should seem simple:

      “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
      ― Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades

      Love it!

      • beatbox32 says:

        Yep, that quote sums it up brilliantly and simply! Thanks for sharing.

      • I love the quote from Thomas Mann! And having read several of his novels, I can see him saying that it’s harder for writers to write than for other people–but I still think he had an easier time of writing his “stuff” than we do reading it (or maybe I just speak for myself). The man was a genius, but he didn’t make it easy for his audience!

  • About writing, I think basically that there are nearly as many ways into the craft as there are writers. I’m not sure, but I think Willa Cather may have written a book of advice; I know Stephen King has written something on writing (called just that; “On Writing”), and Eudora Welty has written something a bit more autobiographical and less advisory which a writer might still be inspired by: “One Writer’s Beginnings.” Every writing teacher, creative writing or otherwise, has a favorite formula they like to quote near the beginning of the semester probably, and just as probably it doesn’t work for everyone. “You seem to want to write, so write” seems to me to be one of the better ones I’ve heard.

    • It’s great advice. It’s the only advice that applies to everyone because, as you say, there are nearly as many approaches to writing as there are writers. Sometimes I’m not even looking for specific rules but to hear from someone with a similar sensibility about how they approach it all. And I do like to read about folks and how they became the person/writer they are today… so Welty’s book on beginnings sounds like my kind of thing… Thanks!

  • thebookbully says:

    I agree with “shadowoperator” per the Stephen King book, “On Writing.” Even if you’re not a fan of his work, one of his tenets will ring true: “Butt to the chair.”

    Lovely and spot-on piece, as always Deborah! This post needs to be tattooed on my forehead.

  • Hi Deborah,

    I’m new to the site, and I’m not an expert, but I would say that you’re doing the most important thing to better yourself as a writer, which is read. You’ve got passion and energy, but more importantly these are both feeding into your work and it’s never heavy handed or deliberate.

    In terms of good books to read for advice on the craft – I think that you’ll always find at least one gem in most books, but it’s a bit like your Anne Lamott experience – having to trawl through and pick them out. I’ve been teaching Creative Writing Masters students for a few years now and the thing that I tell my students when they ask about craft books is: who’s your favourite author? Find their ‘tips on the craft’ book. What strikes me is that, often, the response is: but they haven’t written one.

    I find this interesting – that many of the truly great writers, ones that are inspiring other writers, haven’t written ‘how to’ books. Is this because the ‘thing’ that makes them so truly great is never more than a feeling, something that can’t be put into words, and taught? I don’t know. It may simply be that they are too busy writing the kind of books that they do write! But even that says something…

    There are two things that have really helped me in this everlasting quest to write better. The first is the interview section on the Paris Review Website http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews. The great thing here is that all those brilliant writers are putting gems into words, and even when they’re not, it’s super helpful when you read that even the truly greats find it hard. That to me is a precious bit of information. I tell my students all the time: don’t spend your life trying to get to a point where you know it all because knowledge is like the horizon, and you’ll always be disappointed that you can’t get there, rather than appreciating the journey, which will teach you all you can ever know.

    The other thing that you can be reading is the very first books of those authors that you love. I’m a short story writer mostly, and a great fan of Alice Munro. After reading a lot of her later collections, I finally got round to reading her first. I’ve never felt anything other than awe when I read her stories, and this very first collection of hers gave me such a powerful sense of all the mechanics that go behind her work. It was her writing before she ironed it all out. Even if writers don’t write trilogies, etc., I find reading their first few books in order can really give a powerful sense of their journey as a writer and be very informative, reading almost like a series.

    One thing that is very clear about your blog is that you seem to want to write. About all the other stuff, I would simply say, don’t get bogged down with it. I think I feel that if the great writers are too busy to write ‘how to’ books, it’s because they’re not dwelling on the difficulties, rather accepting them, and getting on with it anyway, the best they can.

    Good luck – everyone need’s it 😉

    • Wow!

      Thank you for this thorough and thoughtful reply, I really appreciate it.

      Certainly, anything I ‘know’ about writing I’ve learned from those authors I love and admire. I was really inspired to read Emerson and his take on the connection between reading and writing (hence the title of the blog). I fell in love with writing by reading and wanting to replicate those books I loved. This is absolutely the most important way that I learn, but I’m also completely hooked on anything to do with the process right now – I’m reading it all!

      And I love The Paris Review interviews, and a similar blog called The Days of Yore. I love memoir and autobiography, seeing how people became and become who they are – or at least how they understand their becoming. I’m fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our narrative lives.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment, and thanks for the good luck wishes, can always do with some of that! 🙂

      Deborah Rose.

      • Hi Deborah,

        Glad to hear that you are ‘completely hooked on anything to do with the process right now’. This is so inspiring! I’ve just had a look through my bookshelves for the books that I’ve read so far. Some of them I read a while ago – still, I know that I got something out of them. But apologies if any of them seem obvious and/or patronising. It says more about what I read! And as I said, I’m no expert. So, in no particular order:
        The Writer’s Voice by Al Alvarez. This was when I was really obsessing about ‘voice’ and wishing I was at that point when I had mine, and writing hurt less! Al says that when we find our voice it picks the locks, opens the doors, and enables us to say what we want to say. I remember thinking, YES! and then (in misery) but how?! Anyway, I recommend that. You do have to ‘pick’ out the gems from sometimes quite academic, technical writing, but could be worth it.
        As you like autobiography, you might try Murakami’s ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’.
        Someone else has mentioned Eudora Welty, but not her book ‘On writing’, which I think is worth a read.
        There’s ‘The faith of a writer’ by Joyce Carol Oates.
        George Orwell’s ‘Why I write’ is great even if only for the paragraph on the necessity for aesthetic enthusiasm to write, saying one must have: ‘Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and out not to be missed.’
        Finally, a book I read a few years ago, but which I made me a much better reader. Francine Prose’s ‘Reading like a writer.’

        Happy writing!

      • Thanks for all of the great recommendations. I’m going to try to get to some of them when I get a chance.

      • I was just looking at What I Talk About When I Talk About Running last night! I started to run again this week after a long hiatus, and needed some inspiration! I’ve also read Francine Prose’s book and think it’s a really valuable read.

        Thanks for the other recommends, I’ll be sure to look into them. Happy scribbles to you too!

  • Jim Brennan says:

    You must’ve known today is Lucille Ball’s birthday. Would have been 101 today. I love Lucy!

  • […] I would not have easily known about if I hadn’t commented on this article and this reader hadn’t posted an insightful […]

  • msmcword says:

    I have been writing as a hobby for over twenty years, and I started blogging this past May (www.msmcword.wordpress.com)

    For me, writing is actually rewriting (and revising the rewriting) until I am satisfied with my work;and I love every minute of it (well, almost every minute).

    Thank you for sharing your writing with us.

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