Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott: a book review

I read a lot of books. Really, it was kind of a herculean effort to wait this long before putting a review up.

I go through phases where I read a lot of books on writing, or a lot of books on a particular research topic (Chernobyl, South Africa, and mercenaries, to name a few), or a lot of books on dogs. I actually didn't used to read much nonfiction, it was novels and short stories all the way, with a smattering of poetry. But, well, things change.

So, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, is a book on writing. Actual writing, not publication, not marketing, writing. And trying to get it right.

Anne Lamott is a refreshing voice in the "how to write" genre. She talks about her neuroses, her neediness, her moods. She talks about fucking up, and soldiering on anyway. It was on Page 6 of the book that I decided I would love it, and perhaps her, when her students ask how you actually write. Her answer:

           "You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. you put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin wrocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, ywan, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poisedo nthe keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming i your mind--a scene, a locale, a character, whatever--and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys."

It goes on, of course. As I said, page 6. Go read it.

The point of the title, in a nutshell, is to take it one step at a time. One page at a time, one word at a time, etc. Don't think of the whole story, or article, or novel, think of what you're doing right now. Other good, concrete advice, if you don't go in for the Zen of Writing, is to hold yourself to a certain word goal every day; Lamott says 300 words, which seems small to me, but really, is better than nothing. It's about a page. It's a blog entry or two. It's flexing those muscles and stirring the stew (my phrases, there).

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