Sunday, June 25, 2006

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Just about any aspiring writer has at least heard of this book, which is probably referred to as often as Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft as an approachable, helpful text from which to learn. I’ve not read anything else by Anne Lamott, but in this book her sense of humor is inviting and infectious. She is honest and relates unattractive tales of her life that help show why she is the writer she has become. At times she gets a little preachy, but a brief glance at her other works shows that faith is a big part of who she is. So, if you accept the rule that writers must use their voice, not that of their favorite writers, then you must either accept her preachiness or just put the book down and move to the next item in the stack beside your bed.

I kept reading Lamott, and I was pleased I did. Published in 1995, Bird By Bird offers a classroom experience in creative writing –- regardless of whether you write fiction or nonfiction. Frankly, her advice isn’t earth shattering, and any writer should already have heard these tips a few hundred times. Still, the chief lesson I took from her was to allow your childhood vision to return and draw on it for your observations, which will inform your work. Be unafraid of what you say –- as you were when you were a child. Another helpful lesson is to accept that your first draft will be shitty and shouldn’t be seen by others. (From my experience, the second draft might be flushable too, and it’s probably best to not show anyone else that ugly thing floating around until it’s fertilized something beautiful.) And for you perfectionists out there, Get over yourselves! For most writers, such advice isn’t too hard to take, but it’s nice to know that a writer who has penned this articulate guide to effective writing practices what she preaches and has had her share of failures.

While I read Bird By Bird, I was reminded of John Irving’s The World According to Garp –- particularly the scene in which Garp discovers his mother has written about him in her book, which becomes a feminist manifesto. He becomes known as the “bastard son of Jenny Fields.” Lamott often talks about her son, Sam, and being a single mother. I wonder what this young man, who’s probably in his early twenties now, thinks of how he’s portrayed -– not that there’s anything wrong. Lamott also speaks about the death of her father, and the death of a close friend, which she has written about in earlier books. Indeed, her nonfiction is probably more successful than this fiction writer would like. But as the old saw prattles on: Write what you know. It’s not exactly how Lamott would say it, though. So find your way while I look further for mine.

Indeed, finding your way is the key. Persevere and know why you are writing. As Lamott says, if it’s just about making money, then you’ll likely be quite disappointed.

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