If I were to ever teach a writing class, heaven forbid, I would have everyone read at least two different writing books written by writers. It wouldn’t matter which ones either, because honestly they all say variations of the same thing. The biggest benefit in doing this is to gain insight and understanding about different writing processes and attitudes and writing styles. The more of these differences a writing student is exposed to, the more likely they are to run across one that will work wonders for them.
I recently finished Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott and found it a joyride to read. It captures being a writer is like, including the ups and downs that come with being just the slightest bit insane. One of the lessons that hit home was that about crappy first drafts. Lamott is a firm believer in the rotten first draft. (She uses coarser language to emphasize this). When writing dreaded first drafts she allows everything to flow out unimpeded by reason. She doesn’t stop, she doesn’t look back, she doesn’t fix typos, until she feels that she has exhausted her brain and there is nothing left. Then after her stew of words has rested a day, she returns and picks out the great bits and throws out the garbage.
Then there is the lesson of the 1×1 inch picture frame. Sometimes it is overwhelming to think of describing a whole vista or a character and try to capture its essence. That’s when Lamott pulls out her tiny 1×1 inch picture frame and examines a tiny piece. She actually has one that she keeps at her desk to remind her of small details. When using the 1 inch picture frame the writer is only allowed to describe what’s in that frame. Instead of writing about all the parts of the local park, the playground, the walking paths, and so on; the writer uses the tiny frame and describes what they can see, a cherry blossom, the rust on the park bench, a toy car in the sand. This way the reader gets a crisp image of one or two significant things instead of a deluge of unspecific information.
Another point that Lamott hits home is that writing is to be used to bless the lives of others. A writer will never more passionate fuel and drive to write than when working on a project that has real personal significance. She wrote a book for her dying father who meant the world to her and another about a dear friend who had terminal cancer – she finished both in time to present them to be read and were the most precious gifts that she’s ever given.
One of the questions that she gets often from her students is, “What should I write about.” Her answer is to write about their childhood, their memories both fond and painful. Write down every last bizarre detail no matter how great or small. Things remembered have emotional power, they are living things and have importance. I tried this the other day, ironically for a blog post over at my other blog, about my memories of my grandpa. The exercise brought back such a torrent of ideas and emotions that it was all I could do to keep from letting it flow out over the page hour after hour. We all have enough fuel from our past to power several lifetimes of books and stories. This isn’t saying that we should all write memoirs, but there will be parts of our own personal story that make would make fascinating and enlightening stories and books.
Would I recommend Bird by Bird? Sure, especially if you are a writer who wants company and reassurance that the crazies in your head aren’t completely abnormal. Anne Lamott has a wonderful skill for drawing abstract parallels and using them to highlight what she is trying to say, making what could have been yet another mundane writing book a fascinating read. Will it make you a million dollar writer? Probably not, but it won’t hurt your chances.
As always –