Updated: Sep 23, 2021
This week’s advice basically boils down to one thing: I think you should read Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. But let me explain.
In the last eight years I’ve spent a reasonable about of my reading time on books about writing. And there are an awful lot out there. It was easier when I was doing my Masters, because at least I had a reading list that felt very official and so I didn’t have to go through the process of filtering through the thousands of books that claim to help you write better/get published/find inner peace/generally become a wonderful human being through the medium of creative writing.
Now, I have to navigate these tricky waters myself. Once enough people have mentioned a book in their blog/review/list of good things, I decide that maybe it’s worth it and buy the book. And this time, I was not disappointed.
All the interconnectedness of inspiration and whatnot makes me uncomfortable, ok?
The main thing I loved about the book was that it’s funny. As writers I’m sure we all take ourselves too seriously anyway, so it was incredibly refreshing to read something that was incredibly tongue in cheek and lacking any sense of pomposity when it came to writing. Like her, I am also uncomfortable about people enthusing over things like flow and creative source, so it’s great to hear someone talk about all of the fluffy stuff with a cynical tone that doesn’t take away from the magic of it all.
Of course you should read it, but here are a few things I took away from the book which will hopefully be useful:
1. Index Cards
This is not a new one, I’m sure. I have about four notebooks constantly on the go, but I don’t have any form of notes for when I’m out and about. Lamott uses index cards, but I’m going for Post-its (I have packets and packets of them from my teaching days). Now I can jot something down before I forget it/decide it’s useless/get distracted by food.
2. Managing Jealousy
I’ve heard this mentioned before, but not really explored in as much details as in this book. I’ve really struggled with the constant comparison to other writers, and how it feels like everyone is succeeding. It’s hard to talk about the fact that you can sometimes despise people for doing better than you, but learning how to process it and move on is a really important part of the creative process that is often overlooked. One to work on.
Yes, I know comparison is bad. No, I can't stop doing it.
3. Writing Unselfishly
It’s so easy to get bogged down in the need to be published. All the stuff you send to agents, magazines, publishers, it leaves you in a constant cycle of needing the next ‘fix’ to make you feel like a success. Lamott talks about how her first novel came from a need to preserve the memory of her father when they found out he was dying. It made me remember that writing can be a wonderful, personal act for those around you, rather than a quest for fame and fortune (har har).
I mentioned it before, but it bears repeating. So many writers (the kind who scoff at writing courses, for example) are so caught up in the sense of their own genius that they think writing is some hallowed space, a place only for a special few. Of course, this is utter nonsense. Writing can of course be taught, and developed, just like any other art form. Approaching what you do with a dash of the funnies is probably the easiest way to step down from the angst of the constant cycle of hope and depression that writing can give you. I particularly liked it when she advised you think of the constant chatter in your head as little mice that you put into jars and then put the lid on.
This is the way she starts, and finishes the book. In the process of reassuring you that your life and perspective are in fact worthy of a book or two, she manages to make you feel comforted and special, while also opening up the writerly gates to anyone who wants to come in. If you trust in yourself, and are honest, you are bound to write truthful, lovely things.
To finish, here’s something she says about trusting your intuition by tuning out your rational mind:
“Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”
Sounds good to me.
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