When I was young and naïve – well, younger than I am now – and working on my first novel, I used to imagine myself walking down the street and being stopped at regular intervals by people who’d read it. I imagined them doing a double-take as they recognized me, whispering to their companions, “Is that her? The one who wrote that best-seller? Is that really Margie Taylor?” All this before approaching me, somewhat shyly, and asking me to please sign my book for them – which of course they just happened to be carrying at the time.
I can admit this now because I’m past worrying about looking foolish – once you hit 70 everyone younger thinks you’ve pretty much lost it, anyway – and because I have it on good authority that I’m not the only writer to harbour such unrealistic expectations. The good authority is Anne Lamott, whose wonderful book about writing and writers was not only a best-seller, but a manual I turn to on a regular basis when I need comforting.
I was given this book shortly after Some of Skippy’s Blues was published, in 1997. It had won the Alberta Writers Guild Award and my son, who was 14 at the time, went into a local bookstore in Calgary and asked for a book about writing to give to his mom. The clerk led him to a section devoted to learning how to write, but that’s not what he wanted.
“She’s already a writer,” he said. “I want a book about being a writer.”
This was back in the day when bookstore clerks knew their onions; she handed him precisely the book he was looking for, although he didn’t know it at the time: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, published four years earlier by Anchor Books. And it was there, in the Introduction to the book, I found the passage that spoke to me. The one that told me that I was not alone in this world. That other neophyte writers had had the same dreams, the same expectations, and the same disappointments. Lamott writes about the anxiety she experienced waiting for her first book to be published. . . hoping for great reviews, fantasizing that publication would be “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”.
The book came out. It garnered some great reviews and a few bad ones. There were some book-signing parties, some interviews, and some people whose opinion mattered claimed to have loved it.
“But overall it seemed that I was not in fact going to be taking early retirement. I had secretly believed that trumpets would blare, major reviewers would 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.”
So it goes. Now, just so you know, Lamott has not been entirely overlooked; she has a huge following on social media, a devoted fan base, and in 2010 she was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. Most imp0rtantly, she keeps writing. And she encourages others with the passion for it to do the same. Sometimes, she says, the act of writing is enough in and of itself, whether or not you are published. Publication, she says, will not do any of the things you hope it will. It will not make you more fulfilled. It will not necessarily make you happier. And it most likely will not make you rich.
Writing, however, is an affirmation of the self. If you are privileged to be able to set aside some part of each day to write, you will feel better and more alive – more real – than at any other moment in the day.
Lamott, who has been teaching creative writing for years, says she has put evey single thing she knows about writing into Bird by Bird. She explains the concept of the short assignment, taking a single moment, a single event or character, and writing eerything about it that you know. She talks about the shitty first draft; I don’t know if Lamott was the first person to come up with this phrase but I first learned it from her. Just put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – and write. No one’s going to see it – no one cares how awful it is. It’s just a shitty first draft.
There are many books out there about writing and writers all have their favourites. I’m particularly fond of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. And Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing”, a short piece written for the New York Times, is a classic. Where Bird by Bird stands out is that Anne Lamott unwraps herself in print: she digs into the fragile, slightly neurotic mind and soul of the writer in order to show us we are not alone. She’s known many writers, some of them very successful, and they all experience hours of boredom, defeat, and self-loathing, when they imagine the well has run dry. They’ve run out of ideas. Or talent. Or energy.
“But,” she writes, “they often also feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives.” It’s what keeps them going. And if you don’t feel this sense of wonder about it, maybe, as Mordecai Richler once said, you’d be better off selling shoes.
Before I sign off today, I want to share with you the origin of the book’s title. It goes back to Lamott’s childhood when her brother, who was 10 at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written for school. He’d had three months to write it and it was due the next day.
“We were out at our family cabin,” she writes, “and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
Good advice for writing.
Good advice for life.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird (1994). Published by Anchor Books.