GIVE YOURSELF A SHORT ASSIGNMENT

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IMG_1088I’m not a great fan of “learning to write” stuff for would-be writers.  As fellow blogger Julie Lawford has recently been discussing in her excellent and beautifully written blog “From A Writer’s Notepad,” there’s a huge figurative shopping mall out there, replete with books, courses, workshops, retreats and other sorts of “writerly learning” that can drain your energy and empty your wallet while keeping you from your writing table (or electronic device), if you’re not extremely selective in your choices.

I’ve already expressed myself at length in Julie’s comment section  — possibly at too great length — on the dubious value to the quality of one’s writing in excess consumption of these products. Yes, there is merit in meeting fellow practitioners of what is essentially a solitary endeavor and in getting a feel for the hurdles confronting you in the world of publishing and/or self-publishing. But I stand my ground that the best way to learn how to write is to write…and to read, read, read all your life, both extensively and intensively.

However, there is one book I often turn to when discouraged.  It’s very well known, and I haven’t unearthed anything new in bringing it to your attention.  Its author relies somewhat more on God in her life than I do, but her practical advice is so sound it’s worth looking at again and again when you feel stuck.  She talks about shitty first drafts, about perfectionism, about false starts — and yes, also about character, plot, dialogue, set design. But the chapter I like best of all, the one that really speaks to me, is the one called “Short Assignments.”

Not surprisingly, it’s a short chapter.  However, it would make a very long blog post, so I’m only going to quote some of it.  But it’s such a good tonic for budding novelists, memoirists, belle lettrists and also bloggers who’ve run out of steam that I thought I’d offer up the choicest parts, including the bit for which the book is named, before turning TGOB in a different direction for a while.  Here it is, abridged. From Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird:

The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments. Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of — oh, say — say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop….[until] I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car — just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard. [Bold italics added.]

So….I remember to pick up the one-inch picture frame and to figure out a one-inch piece of my story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange. I also remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: 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, which was due the next day…..[H]e 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.”

….Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.  It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously…. Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.

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17 thoughts on “GIVE YOURSELF A SHORT ASSIGNMENT

  1. Good post. I so agree with much of it, particularly the reading reading reading part. But 2 points I slightly differ on. One is that I find good writing courses and workshops to be very helpful and think there are a lot of apprentice writers who would benefit from them. The other is that I wrote 200,000+ words of a memoir 1″ by 1″, but there is a huge project in structuring, cutting, and adding necessary but missing scenes. That is truly the hardest part for me. It’s sure nice to know I have those 200,000 words to rely on though ;).

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    • You’re an extremely fortunate young woman (do you have a name?) to have been able to produce 200,000 words without self-doubt or writer’s block. You’ve done what most writers consider the hardest part. The general consensus is that editing and revising is far preferable, and more enjoyable, than digging a first draft out of ourselves. So clearly you don’t need the advice that Lamott offers to those of us who get stuck. (Although it’s pretty good advice for getting through the more problematic parts of life as well.) But I think you’re conflating the references to workshops with which I introduced the “Short Assignments” chapter and the long quotation from that chapter, intended to help loosen logjams when writing, which is really what this post was about.

      If you’re interested in the entire discussion on the topic of “writerly education,” I suggest you click over to Julie’s post, and the one before it, entitled “Spend, Spend, Spend.” You’ll find that topic well thrashed out there. But I also very much hope you’re aware that the section on writing 1″ x 1″ was only a small part of “Bird by Bird” and Lamott has a great deal else to say. (Perhaps the chapter entitled “Shitty First Drafts” might be more helpful?) Finally, let me add that a writing group composed of people whose literary opinions you respect might be very helpful to you at this point in working on your memoir, especially if you feel you don’t have the objectivity to step back and look at your manuscript as if you were someone else approaching it for the first time. And you won’t have to pay a single penny, except for refreshments when it’s at your house!

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      • Hi Nina, my name is Luanne. I also have a writing blog, as well as the family history one. Yes, the shitty first drafts is also handled wonderfully by Lamott. The part of writing I find the easiest is the many many drafts of tiny revisions. But the structure of the memoir is the most difficult of all. So much easier to get out all the scenes on paper than to figure out how to put it all together. I am in a very small writing group in person. There are only 3 of us as our 4th has left to pursue her photography.
        Your discussion with Julie is fascinating. I’m particularly struck by your opinion of writing courses in light of having taught them yourself. I can only speak for my own experience. I think good writing courses and workshops can be very helpful for many reasons. Two of the biggies are that you learn how readers respond to your writing and that you learn by reading the work of other students. And it’s not just reading, but an educated way of reading as a writer. Years ago I got an MFA and the way the program was structured, I didn’t learn enough. Maybe I wasn’t ready either. But more recently, I’ve taken courses at conferences and many many online and while I’ve been disappointed by some, some have been fabulous. My writing has gradually improved. Maybe I’m just a slow learner. I’ve also been a “big reader” my whole life. I taught literature at the college level for many years. My lit crit skills were pretty well-honed, but that’s not the same thing as reading like a writer. Enough rambling for today ;). Thanks for offering a thought-provoking viewpoint, Nina!

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  2. Jools

    Nina, it’s so kind of you to reference my blog and recommend it to your readers – thank you 🙂

    I think the ‘short assignment’ advice is excellent. It was that kind of advice that enabled me to move beyond a couple of short stories into novel -writing territory, with a page here, a description there. The first few words I wrote to get me off the ground are still largely intact and in my now finished novel – 300 or so words from 93,000. And I couldn’t have done it without the odd ‘short assignment’ to keep me moving.

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  3. Probably most of my readers interested in writing are already following you, Julie! But you certainly don’t have to thank me for the few more new readers I may have steered your way.

    I’m happy to see you agree about the “short assignments.” I had a hunch we have more in common than not. 😀

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    • You certainly did, Maureen. And welcome! I hope you enjoy what you find here. In light of your remarks on your own “About” page, you might like to take a look at my post of last December, “Enjoying Older Age Revisited.” It will come up either in the Search Function, or in the Archive for December 2013, or under the tag “Age.”

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