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BIRD BY BIRD


garage books

I know what you’re thinking: “what’s so special about a garage full of books?”, and you’d be right. But I have an attachment for this overflow of books which won’t fit inside my house. I have come to realize that I can go into nearly every room in my house and lay my hand on a book, and we are nearly out of room. Many of these books are comprised of old paperback classics I pick up at thrift stores. The iPad offers another library, so I can stop obsessing about the thrift store contributions.

When the prospect of writing overwhelms you and causes you to procrastinate, as it surely does to everyone, one of my favorite authors has some good advice. Her advice seems applicable to all types of projects beyond writing—and to life itself.

Anne Lamott is a Bay Area author and teacher who tells it like it is and leaves you with the feeling that if you do it her way everything will turn out OK.

The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments. Often when we sit down to write we don’t have a clue what to write about. Would anyone be interested in our childhood, our family history, or does it even need to be about ourselves? But this is like trying to climb a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. You begin backspacing whole sentences and then whole paragraphs. This simply isn’t a good writing day and no one will read it anyway. You’re panting like a lapdog and making slow asthmatic death rattles. You breathe slowly and try to decide whether or not you’re too old for this sort of thing. Painting was easier, and sculpture was even more so. I was happy all the time and didn’t care if anybody liked what I made. You reach the point where you sit and notice the dust on the table next to your desk, and wonder if you should return the phone call you got two days ago.

Then, if you have listened to Anne Lamott’s advice you remember the short assignments. She keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk to remind her that all she needs to bite off for the time being is the amount she can see through a one-inch picture frame. That’s it.

E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘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.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, y0u don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing or life, I have ever heard.

As I look at all these books, old or new, I realize that each of these authors may have had a one-inch picture frame on their desk, so I polish up my own picture frame.

Lamott’s favorite story is of her older brother, who, at ten years of age had a report on birds he was supposed to have had three months to write. He had wallowed in procrastination until the report was nearly due when he was overcome by tears. Their father sat down beside him, put his arm around his small shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy, just take it bird by bird.”

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7 comments on “BIRD BY BIRD

  1. That is so true. Don’t worry; word by word. Each word bedded down often suggests the next one. Be free and let go. Don’t worry!

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  2. That’s the only way top approach life as well. Too much worrying in the world.

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  3. Very inspiring Kayti, I especially like the headlight tale. Thank you x

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    • It’s kind of inspiring when you think of it—every person who ever wrote anything in the history of books has probably had the same problem. What shall I write about? To have a pattern to go by is comforting. “I only have to think of this tiny piece of time. The rest will take care of itself.”

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  4. Both the Doctorow and Lamott bits are true. I suspect we fight against them because we also have a little Dorothy Parker in us. She said, “I hate to write. I love having written.”

    That one-inch frame business is useful. I have a friend who isn’t quite a hoarder, but she’s close. One time, when she’d decided again to get with it and clean up the mess, I suggested she literally “rope off” a six-foot square section of space every day, and deal only with that. I thought it was a genius idea, and so did she. I still use it. 🙂

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  5. I think wanting people to like what we’ve written, and continuing to write, is a big issue for bloggers, even more so than traditional writers. Because the audience is up so close, breathing down one’s neck so to speak 🙂 And traditional writers don’t get instant feedback, or an absence of it. It’s a lot to deal with. Nowadays, I only pay attention to whether I like it.

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