reading list: birds, but not birds

I decided a long time ago to homeschool myself further into the writing and publishing world. Class is in session.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamott

The fun part is that this book starts off with “When I teach a writing class,” and she refers to her students throughout the whole thing. So this book kind of IS taking a writing class!

SECTION 1: Writing

  • Good writing is about telling the truth.” Even if you want to write fiction, you can find the fiction in your own memories and experiences.
  • Short assignments in a “one-inch picture frame.” When feeling overwhelmed, focus on one memory, one description, one page, one tiny detail.
  • First drafts are supposed to be bad. Brain dumping, rambling, all emotion.
  • Overcome perfectionism.
  • Write your stream of conscious about what you remember of something – a one-inch picture frame about lunch in elementary school was her specific example – and see what you can extract from it for a fiction story. You will be surprised.
  • Polaroid development of a story: first of all, what’s a Polaroid? There used to be a type of camera, well before digital, that eased the actual piece of film out of a slot in the camera as soon as you took a picture. It was watery and murky, and gradually settled into focus over a few minutes. Do that with writing – keep going through the watery, murky phase as things gradually come into focus.
  • Characters: start with the people – who are they, what are they doing, and why?
  • Plot grows out of character.” Let the people do their thing, rather than trying to box them into a predetermined plot.
  • Dialogue: this should also be character driven. Read it aloud for flow and to make sure it makes sense for the character.
  • Settings: do your research, get it right. Don’t write about gardening unless you know about gardening, or ask a lot of questions of someone who does.
  • False starts are common. Start over, keep going.

SECTION 2: The writing frame of mind

  • Make observations. Pay attention to the real world, be a noticer.
  • Care, and write about the things you care about.
  • Use your intuition. When you don’t know what to do, get quiet and listen to your intuition.
  • Figure out how to work around your inner mean dialogue. There will be a voice in the back of your head telling you that you’re a failure. Learn tactics to get around it or to silence it.

SECTION 3: Help along the way

  • Take notes. Carry around something to write on and with, and write ideas down as soon as you think of them. This book was published in 1994, well before smartphones made this considerably easier. But the principle is still the same – type into a Notes app, a voice recorder to talk to yourself, take a photo, whatever … just make some kind of note so you don’t forget the idea.
  • Call people who know. We have Google now, didn’t when the book was published. But again – I think the advice still holds. Calling someone to discuss something you could find out on the internet is about the interaction as much as about the information.
  • Writing groups and writing conferences. In the past two years, we’ve obviously had a substantial increase in online conferences and groups, which is GREAT because it means that networking is even more accessible!
  • Get beta readers you trust. Again, “beta reader” wasn’t even a term when this book was written, but that’s what she recommends – a couple of people who you trust to give you an honest assessment of the status of your work.
  • Write a letter to one of your kids or a friend – an honest to goodness old fashioned letter – and tell them something that you remember.
  • To break writer’s block: write 300 words (or some kind of baseline), then go take a walk.

SECTION 4: Reasons to write

  • Write for an audience of one or two, to give it as a gift. Sure, it can still be published for widespread readers, but write for the one.
  • Write your truth in your own voice.
  • Be a giver, and give your best every day. If you hold back, it won’t work as well.
  • Publication: “If what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you are lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent.” (p. 214) There is a sense of accomplishment and joy, “but you pay through the nose for this.” (p. 216)

SECTION 5: The last class

“So why does our writing matter, again?” they ask. Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship. (p. 237)

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