2005-06-18: Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird

Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)

by Anne Lamott (1954-)

This was recommended on someone’s (I’ve forgotten whose) weblog. I’d never heard of Anne Lamott, but something about the recommendation intrigued me, and I requested it from the library.

In the first part of the book, Lamott tries to explain why she started and persisted at writing, painting herself as a weird kid with no friends or prospects, and as a neurotic adult convinced that everyone has severe mental problems. I was tempted to drop the book early. Eventually she got to the advice about writing, which she has taught for many years.

Describing the difficulty of actually sticking to writing, she has a quote from E. L. Doctorow (whom I also haven’t read): “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.” And Chesterton said that hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.

In her advice on characters, she says:

Think of the basket of each character’s life: what holds the ectoplasm together – what are this person’s routines, beliefs? What little things would your characters write in their journals: I ate this, I hate that, I did this, I took the dog for a long walk, I chatted with my neighbor. This is all the stuff that tethers them to the earth and to other people, all the stuff that makes each character think that life sort of makes sense.

The basket is an apt image because of all the holes. How aware is each character of how flimsy the basket really is? How present are your people? Someone once said to me, “I am trying to learn to stay in the now – not the last now, not the next now, this now.” Which “now” do your characters dwell in?

A little later she says:

I once asked Ethan Canin to tell me the most valuable thing he knew about writing, and without hesitation he said, “Nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.” I think he’s right. If your narrator is someone whose take on things fascinates you, it isn’t really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time. I could watch John Cleese or Anthony Hopkins do dishes for about an hour without needing much else to happen. Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal. . . .

Now, a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable. I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I.

On plot, she refers to books by E. M. Forster and John Gardner. She then says “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.” Later: Plot is “what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn’t”. And “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. Think of a hockey player – there had better be a puck out there on the ice, or he is going to look pretty ridiculous.”

She says:

John Gardner wrote that the writer is creating a dream into which he or she invites the reader, and that the dream must be vivid and continuous. I tell my students to write this down – that the dream must be vivid and continuous – because it is so crucial. . . . you don’t get to sit next to readers and explain little things you left out, or fill in details that would have made the action more interesting or believeable. The material has got to work on its own, and the dream must be vivid and continuous.

She says, “Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.” I suppose this is part of the instruction about Life. “The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in ‘The Farmer in the Dell’ standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes.” She promotes “compassionate detachment”, and gets very Taoist. She has this poem by “the Persion mystic, Rumi” taped over her desk:

God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flowerbed.
As roses, up from ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
now a cliff covered with vines,
now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
till one day it cracks them open.

She also has a Gary Snyder poem:

Ripples on the surface of the water–
were silver salmon passing under–different
from ripples caused by breezes

Throughout, she plays down the importance of publication. She urges writing for its own sake, for its effects on the writer, and as a gift to readers such as friends. She quotes Toni Morrison: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”, and says “if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else. Not everyone will be glad that you did.”

The bits above were the interesting bits for me, and I’m sure there are better books for writers than this one. Still, every little bit helps. Perhaps her urging will motivate me to write more.


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