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 Life, as 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.”