BTD Reviews: Bird by Bird

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.

Works Cited

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Anchor Books, 1994.

My Motivations – Thanks to Nina George

One thing I’ve always struggled with as a writer was the motivations that I have for writing. Coming from a background in Christian ministry, I felt that it was always my responsibility to have some large world-changing reason behind absolutely everything of value I did in life. At the beginning of my deconstruction, I began to flounder without this larger purpose and it led to a very dark time in my life. The church has a way of making you feel like you’re nothing without God and his call on your life, so once I walked away from all of that, I struggled to find anything left to rely on. I felt empty and aimless.

It had been a long time since I’d really lost myself in a novel. I spent so much time reading theology books and studying scriptures that I’d forgotten how much I love getting lost in fictional worlds and being charmed by fictional characters. What was the point in reading for pleasure if I was supposed to be serving God every minute of every day? It was exhausting.

Maybe someday I’ll write a blog post about the severe levels of psychological and emotional damage that occurred as a result of my faith, but that’s not what this is about. After deconstructing, I still had the notion that all of my work had to have a large cosmological meaning that would change the world for the better. I couldn’t just write a story; it had to inspire global change. Needless to say, this motivation was very overwhelming and led to burnout even before I was able to begin.

It wasn’t until I read The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George that I really began to understand the beauty of novels. I wasn’t in the best part of my life. I was overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed, and coming out of one of the most challenging places I’ve been personally. I found a home in the romantic streets of Paris and was charmed by the bookseller protagonist on his book barge. I didn’t figure out how to change the world. Nations aren’t being brought to their knees over the words on the pages. But I found myself lost in a beautiful world, cognizant for the first time in years of the power of novels to remind us of the beauty of life and the presence of love. So instead of seeking to change the world, instead I am seeking to bring a little bit of a reprieve to my reader’s lives. Provide an escape from their stressful lives that reminds them of the beauty of life and the prevalence of love. Charm them with words of passion and romance.

I think that’s a noble enough motivation.

The Struggles of Novel Writing

As a 25-year-old late Millennial diagnosed by Tik-Tok with ADHD, sitting down and writing out my first novel has not been the most fruitful of my efforts. I know, it sounds crazy, right? I love to write. I sit and dream of the romantic scenes playing out in my head and I can feel the inspiration surging through me. But the second I sit down to type something out? I lose it. I’m aware of the student debt that I like to pretend doesn’t exist and the embarrassing anecdote I shared at work the other day even though my brain screamed at me to stop, but the story that was just a second ago streaming across my brain like a new 4K movie in an IMAX theater (that’s a thing, right?) is now lost forever. The words that I type lose all meaning and become mere rambles.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m anywhere near an expert on anything, except maybe the Art of Procrastination. I won’t throw out advice that I haven’t found to work in my own life, and even the advice that I do provide will come with the caveat that NOT EVERYTHING WORKS FOR EVERYONE. But the one thing I’ve learned holds true for just about anyone trying to write?

You have to write.

Get that shitty first draft out on paper. Vomit the emotions and the thoughts, spill the scents and sights all over the page. Let the gnawing feelings of inspiration come out, not caring how much of a mess it is when it’s first released. Write something that has no part in the final product because maybe you will learn something about your characters that you might not have otherwise known. There’s magic in the shitty mess we start with.

So here I am, reviving a blog that started years ago and has been dangling by a thread for longer than I’ve had that one jar of pickles stuffed to the back of the fridge. I thought about changing the name. I thought about creating a whole new site altogether. But the name Between the Days really seems to apply to my habits as a writer. Most of my day is either at work, driving to work, or working on my Master’s degree. I don’t have enough time during the day to crank out a romance novel, especially with my trademarked Procrastination™ techniques. But I find the time to write because I have to write. It’s who I am. I find time to write the words that are threatening to drive me mad, and the only time I have is Between the Days.

Come along with me. I can’t promise that this journey will be life changing or inspiring. But I would certainly love the company.

Yours,

Thomas