How to write? Anne Lamott’s way

Anne Lamott celebrated her 61st birthday two days ago, on April 10. She shares her birthday with Paul Theroux, who turned 74 on that day. Book lovers and wanna-be writers will enjoy reading her classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Here’s what she wrote about what’s so special about books.

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For some of us, books are as important as almost anything on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to love and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life — wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and pay attention. An author makes you notice, make you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?

How to write

The book offers advice on how to write.

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out…
“I don’t know where to start,” one will wail.
Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can…
“But how?” my students ask. “How do you actually do it?”
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 down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so… Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind — a scene, a locale, a character — and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what the landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. There may be a Nurse Ratched-like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be cancelled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk…
Yet somehow in the face of all this, 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 moments 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 us go ahead and get started.

Even writers have problems writing, she says.

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow…
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page…Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more ratioal, grown-up means…
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper…

In her memorable words

Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t — and, in fact, you’re not supposed to know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing. First you just point at what has your attention and take the picture.

According to her

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people…
Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (those are the words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground — you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.

Published by Abhijit

Abhijit loves reading and writing.

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