All the notes were taken directly from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
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Why “Bird by Bird”
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention and to communicate what is going on. It can help you soften, can wake you up.
And so if one of your heart’s deepest longings is to write, there are ways to get your work done, and a number of reasons why it is important to do so. And what are those reasons again? my students ask. Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life—wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.
Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.
If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days—listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. People need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion
Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others. It’s even possible to have this feeling when you see—really see—a police officer, when you look right at him and you see that he’s a living breathing person who like everyone else is suffering like a son of a bitch, and you don’t see him with a transparency over him of all the images of violence and chaos and danger that cops represent. You accept him as an equal.
One can find in writing a perfect focus for life. It offers challenge and delight and agony and commitment.
Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.
We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
What to Write About
Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul. Remember that you own what happened to you.
Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that — the details, the nuance, what is. If you start to look around, you will start to see. I write about trying to pay closer attention to the world, about taking things less seriously, moving more slowly, stepping outside more often.
Mark Twain said that Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before. Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.
And the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this.
As we live, we begin to discover what helps in life and what hurts, and our characters act this out dramatically. Write about that time in your life when you were so intensely interested in the world, when your powers of observation were at their most acute, when you felt things so deeply.
Just as in the real world it may take you many years to find out that the stranger you talked to once for half an hour in the railroad station may have done more to point you to where your true homeland lies than your priest or your best friend or even your psychiatrist.
Building the Habit
Don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something— anything—down on paper. Just start getting it down.
You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. Hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk.
In the beginning, when you’re first starting out, there are a million reasons not to write, to give up. That is why it is of extreme importance to make a commitment to finishing sections and stories, to driving through to the finish. If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing, that you lose interest or faith in them along the way, it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately. You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.
Every failed attempt, you are learning what you aren’t writing, and this is helping you to find out what you are writing. Think of a fine painter attempting to capture an inner vision, beginning with one corner of the canvas, painting what he thinks should be there, not quite pulling it off, covering it over with white paint, and trying again, each time finding out what his painting isn’t, until finally he finds out what it is.
What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you’ll get better.
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.
Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.
If you’ve worked in good faith for a couple of hours but cannot make in improvements, have some lunch.
So instead of staring miserably at the computer screen trying to will my way into having a breakthrough, I say to myself, “Okay, hmmm, let’s see. Dying tomorrow. What should I do today?” Then I can decide to read Wallace Stevens for the rest of the morning or go to the beach or just really participate in ordinary life. Any of these will begin the process of filling me back up with observations, flavors, ideas, visions, memories. I might want to write on my last day on earth, but I’d also be aware of other options that would feel at least as pressing. I would want to keep whatever I do simple.
It helps to resign as the controller of your fate. All that energy we expend to keep things running right is not what’s keeping things running right. We’re bugs struggling in the river, brightly visible to the trout below. With that fact in mind, people like me make up all these rules to give us the illusion that we are in charge. I need to say to myself, they’re not needed, hon. Just take in the buggy pleasures. Be kind to the others, grab the fleck of river weed, notice how beautifully your bug legs scull.
My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things. To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence.
The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given—that you are not in a productive creative period—you free yourself to begin filling up again.
To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.
The Illusion about Successful Writers
Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”
Students believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo. It is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug.
I told myself that historically when people do too well too quickly, they are a Greek tragedy waiting to happen.
I remembered that if I wasn’t enough before being asked to participate in this prestigious event, then participating wasn’t going to make me enough. Being enough was going to have to be an inside job. “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.
Thoughts about Feedback
By all means let someone else take a look at your work. It’s too hard always to have to be the executioner. Also, you may not be able to see the problems, because in finding your characters and their story, you are trying to describe something by feel and not by sight. So find someone who can bring a colder eye and a certain detachment to the project.
Mostly what I do is listen, and encourage, and tell people what writing is like for me on a daily basis and what helps me and what doesn’t. I tell people all the things I like about their piece—they need someone to respond to their work as honestly as possible but without being abusive or diminishing.
On a bad day you also don’t need a lot of advice. You just need a little empathy and affirmation.
What is the person growing, and what sort of shape is the land in? This knowledge may not show up per se in what you write, but the point is that you need to find out as much as possible about the interior life of the people you are working with. Now, you also want to ask yourself how they stand, what they carry in their pockets or purses, what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. Whom would they have voted for last time? Why should we care about them anyway? What would be the first thing they stopped doing if they found out they had six months to live? Would they start smoking again? Would they keep flossing? You are going to love some of your characters, because they are you or some facet of you, and you are going to hate some of your characters for the same reason.
Can you see what your people look like? What sort of first impression do they make? What does each one care most about, want more than anything in the world? What are their secrets? How do they move, how do they smell? Everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is—so who is this person? Show us. One way to do this is to look within your own heart, at the different facets of your personality.
Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake. Find a way to express this discovery in action, and then let your people set about finding or holding onto or defending whatever it is. Then you can take them from good to bad and back again, or from bad to good, or from lost to found. But something must be at stake or you will have no tension and your readers will not turn the pages.
I would have all these wonderful shiny bulbs, each self-contained with nothing to hang them on. But I would stay with the characters, caring for them, getting to know them better and better, suiting up each morning and working as hard as I could, and somehow, mysteriously, I would come to know what their story was. Over and over I feel as if my characters know who they are, and what happens to them, and where they have been and where they will go, and what they are capable of doing.
Remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you; each one must have a self. If you can get their speech mannerisms right, you will know what they’re wearing and driving and maybe thinking, and how they were raised, and what they feel.
You might want to try putting together two people who more than anything else in the world wish to avoid each other, people who would avoid whole cities just to make sure they won’t bump into each other.
Read the work of E. M. Forster and John Gardner
Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen. I say don’t worry about plot. Worry about the characters.
I’m also the person whose job it is to hold the lantern while the kid does the digging. What is the kid digging for? The stuff. Details and clues and images, invention, fresh ideas, an intuitive understanding of people. I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn’t even know what the kid is digging for half the time—but she knows gold when she sees it.
Keep trying to move the story forward. There will be time later to render it in a smooth and seamless way. The material has got to work on its own, and the dream must be vivid and continuous.
In order to have this sense of inevitability, the climax of your story will probably only reveal itself to you slowly and over time. You may think that you know what this moment contains—and it makes sense to aim for something—but I recommend that you not fix too hard on what it will be.
ABDCE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending.
You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot—the drama, the actions, the tension—will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?
Dialogue, Setting, Drama & Metaphors
There are a number of things that help when you sit down to write dialogue. First of all, sound your words—read them out loud.
It may help you to know what the room (or the ship or the office or the meadow) looks like where the action will be taking place. You want to know its feel, its temperature, its colors.
Every room gives us layers of information about our past and present and who we are, our shrines and quirks and hopes and sorrows, our attempts to prove that we exist and are more or less Okay.
Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention. The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff.
The setup tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, Why are we here anyway? What is it that you’ve been trying to give? Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable.
Metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known.
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