After publishing the last of her seven autobiographies and taking a professorship, Maya Angelou confessed that she was a teacher who wrote, not the reverse.
The best writers are natural teachers. They gift a generosity of self that allows us to reach for their work both encouraged and enamored.
Anne Lamott (b. 1954) has written a trove of fiction but is best known for her writing guide, Bird by Bird, published a quarter of a century ago.
Lamott was raised in a writing family. Her father encouraged her to notice and observe everything, and she taught herself storytelling and writing as a way to commune and connect.
I grew up around this man who sat at his desk in the study all day and wrote books and articles about the places and people he had seen and known. He read a lot of poetry. Sometimes he traveled. He could go anyplace he wanted with a sense of purpose. One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life as it lurches by and tramps around.
Writing taught my father to pay attention; my father in turn taught other people to pay attention and then to write down their thoughts and observations.
In a world where writing guides come and go like bad sentences, Bird by Bird has endeared. A few gems from this radiant book:
The perils of perfection:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway, and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
On the elusive creative beginnings:
You clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive.
But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work.
So you might as well go ahead and get started.
On the morality and empathy of character: 1
You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.
On crossing the chasm from desire to achievement.2
This is how it works for me: I sit down in the morning and reread the work I did the day before. And then I wool-gather, staring at the blank page or off into space. I imagine my characters and let myself daydream about them. A movie begins to play in my head, with emotion pulsing underneath it, and I stare at it in a trancelike state until words bounce around together and form a sentence. Then I do the menial work of getting it down on paper because I’m the designated typist.
This book’s lasting generosity relies on its balance between writing technique and writing persona. The writing persona, addressed decisively by Margaret Atwood in her book on writing, is an alternative self that allows us to lose consciousness of ego—Lamott’s trancelike state—yet remain in constant contact with our sensibilities.
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, 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.’
To be a writer, we must do what writers do—write, create, edit, improve. We also must be a writer—someone who sits still, someone who steps in and out of consciousness (“Hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm,” wrote Dorothea Brande). And someone who can be disciplined and untethered in close rotation.
The skills we cultivate to meet these needs include navigating deep complexity, playing host and parent to nascent ideas (which we might later kill), and trusting that things formed “bird by bird” will result in something exclusively original and possibly great.
This writing life and persona isn’t for everyone. But the lessons contained therein are.
One more thing, adds Lamott: “My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?”
Dip your toes in the wonderful current of talent with Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Ruined by Reading, Stephen Fry’s loving guidance on unlocking our poetic impulse, John Steinbeck’s personal writing struggle, and, finally, a psalm on courage and creativity, Rollo May’s The Courage to Create.3