Sometimes it’s nice to know you’re not an idiot. Just to have confirmation that the things you teach and what you think you know is legitimate. That other professionals think this way and confirm your mantras.
Anne Lamott did that for me.
I heard many positive things about Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and I it didn’t disappoint.
I read the book because I hoped to require it as mainstream reading in my mass media writing course. I decided against using it for that purpose, mostly because I already required the class to read Stephen King’s On Writing, and I thought Lamott’s book was too similar in style.
1. Writing requires committment
To be a successful writer, you must commit to writing and honor that commitment.
Do it every day for awhile,” my father kept saying. “Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.”
This wonderful piece of advice is applicable, regardless of why you’re writing. You must commit to the craft and make it a habit.
You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. You hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk.”
2. Writing is rewarding
Sometimes the greatest thing about writing is having written.
Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”
3. Writing can be daunting
The title of Lamott’s book comes from a story she tells about her brother attempting to write a report on birds. The boy was overwhelmed by the task, so his father advised him to “just take it bird by bird.”
When you’re struggling to write, just remember to take it sentence by sentence, graph by graph, subject by subject… you know, bird by bird.
4. Writing sometimes stinks
Writers need to get used to writing “shitty first drafts.”
All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”
As I tell my students, just write. You can always edit, but you can’t fix nothing.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”
5. Writing isn’t perfect
There is no such thing as perfect writing, but there is a lot of damn good writing. If you go into your writing attempting perfection, it will paralyze you.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
6. Writing is done when it’s done
Write until you’re done. You know when the story is finished because you have nothing left to say or you bang up against your deadline. Then, you just have to let it go.
There will always be more you could do, but you have to remind yourself that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”
7. Writing well means understanding people
If you don’t understand people and have compassion for them, you cannot write about them.
Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on. 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.”
“To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.”
8. Writing only works with documentation
You will not remember your good ideas. You must keep notes so you can write.
I used to think that if something was important enough, I’d remember it until I got home, where I could simply write it down in my notebook like some normal functioning member of society. But then I wouldn’t.”
9. Writing means recognizing ideas
Story ideas are everywhere. A good writer is observant enough to see them and document them.
One of the things that happens when you give yourself permission to start writing is that you start thinking like a writer. You start seeing everything as material.”
10. Writing is writing through the fear
I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it, and I don’t think you have time to waste on someone who doesn’t respond to you with kindness and respect.”
Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, confirmed many of the things I teach students about writing, and she wrote them, as expected, in a much more professional and meaningful way. It is a wonderful book on writing that I encourage you to read if you haven’t already.