Saturday, September 9, 2017

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer.  Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.  You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.

I can't name any of Anne Lamott's books; I think a lot of people who know Bird by Bird can't.  There's a special irony to that, that an author's book on writing could so completely eclipse the fiction that they have written.  Budding writers turn to this book again and again despite having no real proof that Lamott is a worthy person to be giving advice.  What could be the reason for it?

It certainly doesn't contain the most practical advice.  There are few exercises, and what there are of concrete suggestions are idiosyncratic.  Don't write on Mondays, she says.  Start by just writing about your childhood.  The magic of Bird by Bird, I think, is how perfectly it captures the neurosis and trauma that visits writers.  Lamott understands neurosis and trauma pretty well, but especially that kind that visits writers.  She writes about it with a dark but assuring sense of humor, managing somehow to provide optimism while reminding the reader that what they write will probably never be successful.  Lamott's powerful, sardonic voice gives the impression of sympathy; there's someone out there who understands what it's like to want to write and have it not come easy.

Ultimately, Bird by Bird makes good on its subtitle: "Some instructions for writing and life."  The writing advice is good, if not always pragmatic, but the most powerful parts are when Lamott talks about the death of her witty, intelligent father from brain cancer, or the death of her close friend Pammy, also from cancer.  She talks about writing their stories as a kind of gift to give to them and it doesn't seem at all maudlin.  She's able to get to the heart, I think, of why writing is so appealing: its ability to transcend, or feel as if it transcends, the narrowness of the world, and even the banal inevitability of dying.  And yet the book is so lighthearted.

I'm teaching creative writing--four sections of it, my gosh--for the first time this year.  I don't know what I'm doing.  I returned to Bird by Bird for some advice that might be useful to my own budding writers, but I also found a lot of good advice about dealing with not knowing what you're doing in general.  Most of writing is just showing up and doing it, she says.  Hopefully that's true for teaching writing, too.

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