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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Love at First Write: The Writing Book That Saves My Soul (Or at Least My Manuscripts)

I am a big fan of books on writing generally, and I've read a good many that have shaped my skills and nudged me up another step. But the book I find myself returning to over and over (and giving away over and over) is this one: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. (I have in fact given my personal copy away so many times - and then really missed it and had to run out and buy and mark up a new one - that I finally did something that would make me hold onto my copy. Well two things, really. First, I grabbed a chance to hear Anne Lamott speak and got her to autograph my copy...
...and then I went to the bookstore and bought a stash of extras, so I'd always have a copy to give away when the urge hit me.

So why, you might ask, do I love this book so much? One reason is Anne's attitude, which is gentle, honest, encouraging. (Side note: I cannot help calling her Anne. Even though our acquaintance is limited to the 10 seconds I spent stammering Ireallyadmireyourbooksespeciallythisone, when it was my turn to get an autograph. She did give me a nice smile despite my rapid-fire blathering and didn't call security to have me removed as a stalker. That makes us buds, right?) Every time I read this book I emerge from its pages feeling like, yeah, maybe I can do this writing thing after all. Especially if Anne in the form of this book will sit right next to me, offering her quiet patience and acceptance.

But the other reason I love it is the content. It's beautifully written, of course, with a real voice that's rare in how-to books, so it goes down easily - but it's the reminders about how and why that I turn to when I'm stuck on my novel, a 400-word picture book manuscript or even a sympathy note about someone I barely knew.

For example, one of the first chapters is titled with a two word life line that's my mantra when I'm feeling overwhelmed by the enormous whiteness of a blank piece of paper or a new document: Short Assignments. Anne writes that she keeps a one-inch picture frame by her computer to remind herself to focus on one small, manageable task - a paragraph, a sentence - when the thought of a 350-page book makes her freak out. She describes this particular kind of terror in a way that makes me laugh, but which is also oh-so-familiar:
Trying to write a whole book "is like trying to scale a glacier. It's hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back."  
I used to have a cute tiny vintage picture frame by my computer too, but then one day when I needed a last minute gift, I nabbed it to hold a piece of tiny artwork. (Guess I need to lay in a stash of small frames along with my Bird by Birds...) Meanwhile, though, the one inch square I cut out of an old library card catalog card does the trick just fine. And I like how the card has an even tinier peephole in it - because sometimes even a one-inch square assignment is too overwhelming for me. Sometimes all I can manage is one word or one lightly sketched line.

This chapter is also the one that contains the story that lends the book its title. Once when her ten-year-old brother had procrastinated on a science report until he was sitting frozen at his desk the night before it was due, unable to write even one word, her father put his hand on the boy's shoulder and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

The next chapter is also a favorite of mine - and another much repeated mantra. Though I'm not as good at following the advice:

The other content, though, that I reread endlessly, is the last section of the book on the why of writing. It's good for me to remember that publication is not the only or even the best reason to write. This section offers all kinds of other ways to be satisfied writing - even without an official seal of approval from a publisher. The advice that opens this chapter is particularly worth remembering.

I will leave you with one more thing -  a Short Assignment, a mini exercise, if you feel like undertaking it. I found a scrap of paper in my copy when I grabbed it to photograph. There was one word written on it:

Nosocomial I have absolutely no idea why I wrote that on a scrap of paper and no idea either how or why it ended up as a bookmark in here. It's a medical term, from the Latin, meaning "acquired in a hospital" - like a secondary infection you pick up while you're recovering from surgery, although I guess it could also refer to the slipper socks you sometimes get to take home as a souvenir. "These? Oh, these are just my nosocomial socks." Anyway, your assignment is to write a "3-minute fiction" piece (like the ones for this cool recurring NPR writing contest) using the word. Oh, and you have to put in a parrot too. You know, for the bird thing. And a chickadee. You can post a comment here and link back to your piece. Have fun!

1 comment:

  1. Carol's fun 3-minute assignment:

    When Chuck woke up and rolled over he remembered he had company. She was a rock band drummer/part-time RN he picked up last night in the emergency room, a welcome nosocomial, and much more fun than the painkillers he'd weedled out of the doctor. Polly lay on her stomach looking at him, her arms still sprawled above her head. Chuck pulled back the sheet to get another look at the tattoo that started on the underside of her left arm and finished on the left side of her back. With her arm raised, it looked like the colorful parrot was about to take flight. As he stroked the detailed wing with his bandaged hand, she whispered, "How's your finger, my little chickadee?"

    Who's next?