I’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.