In my MFA program, each course is accompanied by a mentor text. This term, I chose to read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Through the course of the term, it has become not only one of the most influential books on writing I’ve had the pleasure to read, but it has greatly influenced the way I view life in general. Lamott’s approach to the task of writing is honest and encouraging without overpromising. She comes beside you and nudges you in the right direction, like a good friend that bears a slight resemblance to your mother. I will always remember this book and the wisdom it contains.
Early in the book, Lamott discusses the idea of perfectionism as one of the main roadblocks to successful writing. She writes, “perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here – and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing” (Lamott 30). Through most of my schooling, the teacher would always remind us to check our work. “I will know if you didn’t,” she would chime. I took pride in never checking my work yet never receiving a lower grade. “I never check my work,” I would brag to my friends. I guess we know why I had a lonely childhood. I have always had this standard I’ve set up for myself that my writing needs to always be perfect from the start. “I never check my work” I tell myself, my pride causing me to give in quicker than I started. I’m always afraid to write what Lamott refers to as a “shitty first draft” because, if I do, then I will have to go back and check it (26). What will I have to gloat over then? Reminding myself of the grace that comes with writing freely without concern of quality has allowed me to write with so much more abandon and passion.
Another technique that I’ve taken to heart is Lamott’s idea of carrying around index cards so we can make sure to capture the fleeting breakthroughs that happen at the worst possible times. Rather than all our best ideas coming to us when we’re sitting at our computer writing, they seem to come out when we’re driving 70 miles an hour on our 55-minute commute. We think we’ll remember, but we don’t. Of these fleeting thoughts, Lamott writes, “they’re often so rich, these unbidden thoughts, and so clear they feel indelible. But I say write them down anyway” (128). She goes on to say, “for any number of reasons, it’s only fair to let yourself take notes” (129). Even within the last 48 hours there have been three opportunities in which I’ve had a fleeting thought and written it down in my journal. Two of them have been small breakthroughs for my novel. Another was this random gem that I may or may not use someday: “Her haircut resembled the well-groomed tail of a prize AKC collie.” All that to say, there are a plethora of stories happening constantly around us and noticing them through the eyes of a writer will only make my writing better. So what if I have shitty memory? I will just write it all down on index cards.
Perhaps because I am still a new writer with little wisdom to share, or perhaps because I am an Enneagram 9 who instantly merges with new opinions in order to avoid inner conflict, there was not a single technique in this book that made me think “nah, that’s not for me.” I saw Lamott’s passion and talent rushing through the pages like a river breaking a dam, and I stood with my arms outstretched to catch as much as I could. There are a few parts that I struggled with, however. One quote that halted my reading and instituted a bit of a mental meltdown was “you probably won’t be able to present a character that recognizable if you do not first have self-compassion” (Lamott 92). Once I recovered a bit from my shock and panic, I did what every great writer did and tweeted about it. Then I went back to my reading. In all seriousness, I struggle the most with giving myself a break. Even outside of the confines of writing, I never see myself as worthy of anything. I question all praise and fear that my relationships are based on pity and obligation, rather than a mutual desire to be around each other. Once again, we’ve brought ourselves to the necessity for therapy. While difficult, I can perform my current career in pretty much any mental state without a glaring lack in quality. With writing, however, I fear that if I don’t take an honest approach towards better mental health and love for myself, and a bit of self-compassion, then I will never be able to write effectively. I suppose it’s time I get into therapy.
At the risk of sounding cliché, I would say the main takeaway from this novel, even to the extent of potentially inspiring my next tattoo, is Lamott’s main sentiment of taking writing “bird by bird.” In the very beginning of the book, Lamott tells the story of her brother struggling to write a report on birds. She ends the chapter with the encouragement that, as we approach writing a novel, “we are just going to take this bird by bird” (19). This short mantra encompasses all of Lamott’s advice. We’re going to take this shitty first draft one shitty page at a time. We’re going to work on defining our characters one at a time. We’re going to take a peek at the secrets and hushed details of life around us and reveal them in our writing, one by one. We will accomplish this task, we will write this report, bird by bird. To end with my own sort of mantra, I will write a novel and be a writer, and I will take it bird by bird.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Anchor Books, 1994.