I’m just starting my own journey into creative writing and I thought I could use some help. I’m enrolled in an online course on writing fiction and I wrote my first 500 word story earlier this week. Other writers have recommended Lamott’s book as well Stephen King’s On Writing and Larry W. Phillip’s Ernest Hemingway on Writing. I will return to these titles in the course of my writing journey.
Lamott’s father was a writer and he taught her and his students to write every day, read great works, and allow themselves to make mistakes. She describes the thrill of finally seeing one’s work in print. She came to see herself as the one who “could make the story happen” (page xix). She identifies herself as the funny kid. The moment in which she believed that she could do what other writers could do was in her junior year of high school. In college she was introduced to Kierkegaard, Beckett and Doris Lessing and she “swooned” (page xxi). I know that feeling.
Of the writing process, Lamott observes, “It is work and play together” (page xxix). She recommends sitting down to write at the same time every day in order to encourage the creative subconscious. She reaffirms the strong connection between becoming a better writer and a better reader. Volumes and volumes have been written on this connection over the years.
She addresses the problem of creative anxiety by suggesting that aspiring writers start with simple descriptions and say to themselves “That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment” (page 20, author’s emphasis). Psychotherapist and creativity coach Eric Maisel has written a book titled Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians and Actors.
Lamott divides the writing process into three drafts. First comes “the down draft” which consists of getting it down on paper. No one has to see the first draft, which many writers find this liberating she says. Then comes “the up draft” where changes are made to fix up the first draft. Finally, the third, or “dental draft” is where the writer “checks every tooth.” She warns that perfectionism will only serve to come between you and your first draft.
When it comes to creating characters, she advises imagining the contents of their journals and then picking a “now” for them to occupy. She warns against an imbalance between narration and plot, observing that if one “listens” to his or her characters, “plot grows out of character” (page 53-54). To create dialogue, she suggests sounding it out, taking care to make each character sound different from the others and putting together two people who would otherwise avoid each other. She says that a writer knows he or she is on the right track when his or her characters have grown “impatient” in their dialogue (page 67). She feels that dialogue reveals the characters’ hearts and she reminds her readers that it is wise to remember that even the villain has a heart.
When it comes to placing the narration and characters, Lamott explores the power of metaphors such as gardens and rivers, observing that “metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known. But they only work if they resonate in the heart of the writer” (page 77). She believes that the setting is so important that “in lieu of a plot you may find that you have a sort of temporary destination, perhaps a scene that you envision as the climax” (page 85).
Lamott advocates working “section by section” as if building a house (page 87). She advises taking notes on each section, reordering the sections, and starting the third draft. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” she warns once again (page 93).
In Part Two: The Writing Frame of Mind, Lamott says writers need to be reverent, in the sense that reverence is awe because when we read we “have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul” (page 99, author’s emphasis). She goes onto to say, “I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world-present and in awe” and I agree with her (page 100). She says writers need to listen to their intuition, especially on the first draft, but to take a break if they cannot hear it. Rituals help the unconscious come alive she emphasizes. I have found brewing a cup of tea to be helpful.
In Part Three: Help Along the Way, Lamott discusses the tools that help writers through the process. She herself keeps index cards and pens all over the house and observes that “you start seeing everything as material” (page 136). The index cards jog her memory but she eventually throws most of them away after they’ve been converted into writing. She says not to hesitate to call other people for help, which could include joining or starting a writing group. I know of Writing Meetups in Baltimore. Writing groups provide feedback, encouragement, benevolent pressure, and company. She suggests having your spouse or a close friend read your finished drafts and give an honest critique but warns that it takes time to find “both a friend and critic” (page 171).
When stuck, she suggests trying to write a letter because its “informality just might free you from the tyranny of perfectionism” (page 172). Writer’s block will happen she says and she advocates taking a long break because the unconscious will start working again on its own. She reminds her readers, “Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck” (page 182). She observes that it is natural to adopt favorite writers’ styles until one finds his or her own voice.
Part Four of Bird by Bird is dedicated to Publication, or what Lamott describes as the gold medal: “But the coach says, ‘If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.’ You may want to tape this to the wall near your desk” (page 218).
In her conclusion, she advises writing “toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable…” (page 226). She ends Bird by Bird by answering why writing matters: “Because of the spirit…Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul” (page 237).
I believe that sums it up beautifully and brings us back to the heart of the humanities.