Lessons From Books: Bird By Bird

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is exactly as the title suggests, a book that has valuable pieces of information about both writing and about life. The writing tips are practical, but in reality, they are common and not wholly unique. The book will not transform you into a New York Times bestseller. Lamott isn’t trying to sell you some get-rich-quick scheme. Instead, she talks about patience, creating writing routines, working hard, doing tons and tons of revisions, subverting expectations, and enjoying the process. Like I said, not unique, but practical.

However, the real gem of this book was the connection Lamott makes with writing and life. How the interpersonal relationship of the two nurtures each other. The lessons she draws upon from writing help you understand life better and, through the awareness of life and yourself, your writing becomes genuine and vulnerable. This is where I fell in love with this book. The following are a few of the main points that stuck with me from Bird by Bird.

Why Pursue Writing?

A commitment to writing goes beyond telling stories. It is an exploration of life. You are committing to observing the life around you. You pay attention to everything from the macro like politics, societal trends, cultural changes, to the micro such as the encroaching yellowish tint on leaves as fall approaches or the faint smell of peppermint as you pass by a cafe or the thin, practiced smiles of strangers you see during the day. Keeping tabs on both the small and large details of life becomes part of the job.

You are also committing to observing yourself. Your own internal state. You come to dissect memories, unpack different thoughts, question your own opinions because that’s where your scenes lie and your characters dwell. You become aware of your feelings and emotions and what triggers them and how deeply you feel or perhaps the lack of feelings which can be equally important. As you understand yourself, you come to understand others because of the commonalities we all share as human beings. You develop empathy, patience, respect because these are the things you need to understand yourself and the extension of these qualities benefits the people around you. This then helps you create stories that connect with others.

In the same vein, the commitment to writing also improves your habits and character. The aim may be to write a story or to finish a novel or to publish a collection of poems, but in order to do that, you need to practice your skill set. You have to find a way to measure progress which, in writing terms, maybe keeping tabs on daily word count or pages written or, as Neil Gaiman suggests, the number of hours you spent at your writing station. You need to develop a routine that helps you balance your life and also maximize your writing. You need to develop discipline and focus so the time spent writing is productive. The rejection letters help you create a thick skin towards criticism and feedback, but also you need a sense of detachment from your work so you can apply the necessary feedback. All these qualities not only help you towards your writing goal but mold you into a capable individual.

A Perspective Towards Restarting

One of the hardest decisions you can make in writing is to start over after you have committed many hours of your time and written dozens and maybe hundreds of pages. But sometimes finding out what you don’t want to write is as important as knowing what you do. Often, what you have in your head doesn’t translate well on paper. But you can only know that by putting it on paper. This is still a type of progress. Slow, painful progress, but progress nonetheless.

The idea of restarting is present in life as well and it is equally as difficult, but also important. You can only know if a relationship will work out by actually being in one, similar to how you have to put words on paper to know if they work. And it may be painstaking to end the relationship and restart again, but it must be done so you can step closer to a relationship that you actually need. Or you might come to dislike your dream job, towards which you have committed years of your life. But if you’re able to restart again, go back into the job market, learn a new skill, change career paths, the years to follow could potentially have greater rewards than you could have imagined. In this process of elimination, you get closer to what you actually want in life and, in writing terms, what you actually want to write about.

Short Assignments

Short assignments is the idea that you need to focus on the task at hand and do that as well as you can before you move on to the next short assignment. The title of the book, Bird by Bird, comes from this idea. Lamott shares an anecdote of when she was a kid and her brother was stressed out about a school assignment relating to birds and her father’s advice was simple, take it bird by bird. Write about one bird and then move to the next one. One small thing at a time. One short assignment at a time.

When you think too much about the bigger picture, it causes you to lose focus and get lost in the grand scheme of things. But when you can focus on what’s right in front of you and work on that, you make progress. Narrow your focus from the macro to the micro. Focus on the next step and that’s it. The next dialogue or description or narration or action piece. That’s how you complete a story.

Similarly, life itself can be daunting if you constantly focus on the end goals. A four-year degree can seem like a lifetime away, but the assignment or exam in a week’s time is right in front of you. Knock that out of the park and you step closer to the degree. When you only look at the end, you might not recognize the small progress you have made and this can leave you disheartened and even result in negative thoughts and feelings. But if you turn your focus to the short assignments and work on doing that the best you can, then you come to recognize progress and movement. And this is revitalizing. The end goal may still be a long way away, but you have achieved something towards that goal. In the same way, writing one good descriptive passage is an achievement towards writing a 300-page novel, get an A+ on an assignment is an achievement towards your degree. 

Child’s Draft Or The Shitty 1st Draft

This means that when you write your first draft, just write whatever comes to your mind. Whatever images, phrases, dialogue that come without censor. You can even write bullet point notes. It doesn’t matter. No one is going to read the 1st draft except you and all you need to do is get the story out of your head and on the paper so you can edit and make it better. This is the process. Trust it. Write a shitty 1st draft and then edit it relentlessly until it is good. This may require you to overcome your perfectionist/self-critical inner voice, which can’t stand the shitty 1st draft.

This is a lesson for life. Often your first action is wrong or not as good as you hoped. But that first action is required so that your 2nd, 3rd, 4th actions can move you towards where you want to go. But you can be stuck in the perfectionist mindset, which delays your 1st action so you never fail or stumble and never get to correct that mistake either so your proceeding actions can be better. In reality, perfectionism is an excuse for inaction.  A resistive force to stop yourself from doing the hard, uncomfortable work which, in writing terms, is revision, and with life, is self-reflection and ownership. 

Two more writing-related lessons:

Understand your characters

Find out as much as possible about the interior life of your characters. Let it come naturally through writing. Not all of it has to go into the story, but you should know as much as possible. A way to familiarize yourself with the characters is by asking practical everyday questions which peel back the layers of your characters and humanizes them. Some examples Lammot provides are: What kind of impression do they leave behind? What do they carry in their purse? How do they move? Who did they vote for? What would they do if they had six months to live? Questions that reveal the character’s traits, faults, emotional baggage, positives, and negatives.

Another way to familiarize your character is by partially basing them on someone you know. This way, you have a base structure to work with. Or, by sharing your own flaws through the character, which also makes them more vulnerable and genuine. 

Also, understanding who your character isn’t is a good way to understand who your character is. Similarly, how a form of self-discovery is knowing what you don’t want, need, or like, understanding what your character doesn’t want, need, or like will bring you closer to knowing what the character wants, needs, or likes.

Short Story Formula

ABDCE: Action (start), Background (Who/what/why), Development (the characters build drama/action/tension), Climax and Ending (What happened, What did it mean, and What our sense of the characters is now).

Writing/Life Advice: Don’t Get Overwhelmed

This is a reminder to myself as much as it is to others. I’m currently working on my first novel and by currently I mean it’s been several years where I’ve gone back and forth between different stories, characters, scenarios trying to find the perfect one as if something like that exists. Often times I’ve found myself planning more than writing. It’s a form of procrastination or pleasure-seeking where you feel accomplished because you planned something that you’ll soon do. Like a false start at a 100m sprint, I find myself restarting over and over again and I believe the main reason for this is that I focus on the big picture too much. I’m constantly thinking about 20, 50, 100, 200 pages from now when I should be focused on this blank piece of paper in front of me. This habit of wanting to get to the end can be overwhelming because it takes you out of the present. It gives you unnecessary doubt or stress because the present may not be going well. So, that doubt can take over and cause you to abandon the project altogether, as I have in the past.

Here is where Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird comes in. In her memoir, she recites a piece of advice she came across in her journey to become a better writer. This advice hit home for me and perhaps it will for you as well.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

Lamott likens this to her idea of the “one-inch picture frame” which is the idea of just focusing on this one sentence, get that right, get this one paragraph right, this “one small scene, one memory, one exchange” correct.

Often times our anxiety kicks in when we focus too much on the future. The reason for this is because everyone’s future is uncertain to some extent. Self-doubt creeps in with uncertainty and this becomes a recipe for a false start.

So, in order to avoid this, we just have to remember the one-inch picture frame or take comfort in the light your headlights are casting and enjoy the ride.

 

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Tell Your Truth Through Writing

I am one of those people who is constantly daydreaming. It’s almost an ailment because I am always thinking of different “what if” scenarios. I’m sure I am not alone in this. In fact, I’m positive that as a species, the ability to wonder and to allow our minds to create possibilities is one of the ways we have evolved to this point in history. I say this because one of the things a writer attempts to do is to put into words these “what if” scenarios and different possibilities.

And that is where the problem arises. If only it was as simple as copying what is in our heads and pasting it on a sheet of paper. Not to mention the greater issue which is that these words feel lifeless, these scenarios that excite our minds are rarely ever as exciting on paper perhaps because the act of writing requires one to flesh out the idea, to fill in the gaps which are bypassed by our consciousness and through this tedious act of unpacking a scene, we are left with something that is dull, bland, without wonder because our original aim was sensational pleasure rather than an attempt to say something that is truthful.

To say what is truthful to you takes courage because you open yourself up to the scrutiny of others. Yet, it must be done. One of the pleasures of writing is to discover who you are through your writing. By not aiming for the truth, you deprive yourself of this pleasure.

As Anne Lamott says in Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.

The natural question that arises from this is how do we go about doing this? How do we tell the truth? Where to start?

For Lamott, the process starts at our childhood.

Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.

This task can seem overwhelming because there isn’t a clear direction, nothing to focus on. So, you must create your own boundaries so you can zoom in to a specific time period of your childhood and get a truthful picture.

So you might start by writing down every single thing you can remember from your first few years in school. Start with kindergarten. Try to get the words and memories down as they occur to you. Don’t worry if what you write is no good, because no one is going to see it. Move on to first grade, to second, to third. Who were your teachers, your classmates? What did you wear? Who and what were you jealous of? Now branch out a little. Did your family take vacations during those years? Get these down on paper. Do you remember how much more presentable everybody else’s family looked? Do you remember how when you’d be floating around in an inner tube on a river, your own family would have lost the little cap that screws over the airflow valve, so every time you got in and out of the inner tube, you’d scratch new welts in your thighs? And how other families never lost the caps?

Write down everything you can remember about every birthday or Christmas or Seder or Easter or whatever, every relative who was there. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul.

This exercise is useful because it makes you unpack your own life, your own thoughts, opinions, beliefs and most importantly, your own truth. It is not so much about the event that is being described rather it is the perspective of the individual describing the events that make the writing unique.

So, you must sit down with a piece of paper in front of you or a laptop screen or even a typewriter and write as honestly as possible. You must do this every day, around the same time, creating a routine which allows you to be open and vulnerable but more importantly, truthful.