If You’re a Writer, Listen to Anne Lamott

Recently – probably on one of the late night shows – I heard someone say that every time he starts working on a new book, he first reads Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. That it has taught him to accept that you just have to suck it up and finish the first draft and know that every first draft in the history of mankind has been a “shitty draft,” no matter if you’re Shakespeare himself.

“Wait, I have that book,” I told myself. I specifically remembered reading about the shitty draft and feeling greatly relieved that I wasn’t the only one laboring for an hour over one measly sentence that just wouldn’t behave. Knowing that the greatest writers weren’t happy either with what they put down on paper the first go-around gave me courage to keep going.

Indeed I found Bird by Bird on a dusty shelf in my study, sat down then and there, and started reading. It was like a godsend. I’ve been “working” on my second book for years, with plenty of excuses as to why I haven’t had time to actually finish it. Lately I had taken up working on it again, in 15-minute increments. I had made a bargain with myself that the first glass of wine couldn’t be had if my 15 minutes hadn’t happened that day. It has worked surprisingly well, but I needed to get beyond 15 minutes. I needed to get back to a place where I wanted to open up the computer and write for hours.

photo: haven4writers.com

Bird by Bird has been exactly the shot in the arm that I needed.  It’s like Anne peeked into my brain when she wrote this in the opening chapter:

“I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem. That did not happen for me.”

And then this:

“I had secretly believed that trumpets would blare, major reviewers wold proclaim that not since Moby Dick had an American novel so captured life in  all of its dizzying complexity. And this is what I thought when my second book came out, and my third, and my fourth, and my fifth. And each time I was wrong.”

Publication of a book, she goes on to say, is not all that it’s cracked up to be. I can second this sentiment. Holding your first book in your hands feels great. Getting your first review, especially from someone you don’t even know, is groundbreaking. Getting fan mail from a woman who told you she discovered your book when her seat mate on a flight was reading it and she was curious enough to ask about it and buy it later makes you go warm and fuzzy for an entire week.

But inevitably, these feelings subside. In their place comes the yearning for the next big goal, coupled with severe self-doubt that you won’t be able to pull it off a second time. And that is where Anne’s insight is so valuable for us writers. Writing itself, she says, is the real prize. The actual act of writing, so agonizing and frustrating and laborious most of the time, is the best part. Yes, we have to force ourselves to do it, and most of the time we only do it because that grand prize of publication is dangled in front of our eyes. But in the end the writing will have been it’s own reward. Like “discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony,” as Anne puts it.

I’ll put it again in big bold letters, because it is so important:

WRITING ITSELF IS ITS OWN REWARD

photo: leadingladiesafrica.org

I will now spare you the details of my aha moment, that this is true about all things and not just writing, that life is a journey, bla bla bla.  I was once told by an editor to avoid clichés” like the plague” (which expression, if you’re being a stickler, is a cliché all of its own), so let me try to get back to safer ground.

What I so love about Anne’s book – aside form the fact that she has a brilliant wit – is that it gives you a reason to want to write, and it also gives you the tools. She has taught writing workshops for years, after all. Her first and foremost message, for me at least, is that you just have to keep writing every day. When you stop for too long, the hurdle of starting again grows bigger and bigger.

Forming habits of writing at certain hours of the day greatly helps. She recounts how her father, also a writer, would get up at 5:30 every morning to write for a few hours before making breakfast for the family. And he’s hardly the only one. Stephen King has much to say about his goal of writing 1,000 words each day before allowing himself to do other things. Though I don’t have much admiration for Ernest Hemingway, I do admire his dedication to writing at least four hours every morning before allowing himself to get senselessly drunk.

What I need, I’ve realized, is to form new habits that better incorporate writing time. I spend at least an hour every morning reading the newspaper with my morning tea, and then I spend the next hour severely depressed about the state of the world while devising ways how to torture and slowly kill the person who invented Twitter. If I skipped the paper and headed straight for my computer instead, this would give me two solid hours of writing time every day.

Ann Lamott has plenty more to say about writing, and I recommend you read every single word of it. But for now, I’m going to let you go so that you can put an hour’s worth of writing time on your calendar for tomorrow.

Remember, the earlier you finish that shitty first draft, the sooner you can get working on the second one!

photo: from the brilliant blog post Everything takes as long as it takes by Amy Henry

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