I have a tape of a Tibetan nun singing a mantra of compassion over and over for an hour, eight words over and over, and every line feels different, feels cared about, and experienced as she is singing. You never once have the sense that she is glancing down at her watch, thinking, “Jesus Christ, it’s only been fifteen minutes.”I do so enjoy the wit of Anne Lamott.
I've been reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994). The title itself encapsulates one of my favorite anecdotes from Lamott:
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. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he 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.'This is Lamott's recipe for writing: take it "bird by bird." Focus on the small steps, one by one, and you will gradually move toward a larger goal. Lamott argues for the benefit of "short assignments": "figure out a one-inch piece of ... story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange."
And little by little, one by one, the short assignments will help you to build momentum as a writer.
Lamott is also famous for her advocacy of "shitty first drafts": just write it down, and don't worry about how bad it sounds.
While I agree with the principle behind the "shitty first draft," personally, I find that there is only so "shitty" I can let a draft get before it becomes humiliating and pointless. As I said, I agree with the premise Lamott is advocating: don't give up just because it sounds bad (or even not very good), just keep writing, because it's only in the writing that you can find the way.
For me personally, though, if it gets too obnoxiously "shitty," I find it makes more sense to stop writing and put the ideas on the back-burner of my brain. Let the thoughts and the ideas cycle through, talk to myself about them, find my phrasing that way.
And then, come back to the actual writing. As Lamott points out, "this is the nature of most good writing: that you find out things as you go along. Then you go back and rewrite."
It sounds so simple, but I think many people really struggle with the idea that you'll figure out what you're writing as you're writing it. I find that when I start with a set idea in mind and try to hold myself to it, I hem myself in in ways that often don't ultimately "work" for the piece itself. If I had a nickel for every wasted hour I spent trying to force my sentences and my ideas into a perspective I thought I had... I'd be rich.
Joan Didion has commented on this phenomenon at the very level of grammar itself:
Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement.The picture can only dictate the arrangement, though, if you loosen your grip on the sentences themselves and leave them free to move and rearrange themselves as you go.
As Lamott argues, "Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly."
I think many beginning writers stay hypnotized and feel that retreating to a position of cold calculation after the warm moment of inspiration is over is a betrayal of their artistic impulses. I think most writers--and artists--would tell them that the artwork begins with an inspiration, but it doesn't end there. No one really knows where it ends, once it begins, and sometimes the best and most promising beginnings don't necessarily lead to great things.
You need the false starts and the missteps just as much as--if not more than--the moments of "flow."
Again, as Lamott points out, "Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more."
It sounds odd, but I think every writer has an impulse to hoard: sentences, phrases, stories, ideas. You keep them back for a "better" time, but in doing so, you fail to use them. And they wither on the vine.
That doesn't mean, of course, that you dump it all into whatever you happen to be writing at the moment. Simply that you don't save the best for later. The best belongs in the moment in which it comes to be.
Finally, Lamott notes that, "To be great, art has to point somewhere." I think this is a crucial idea that gets lost in the work of writers who think art is its own explanation (pace Oscar Wilde). Art for art's sake is still a direction: it points back upon itself. It isn't directionless or aimless.
It forces us to, in Lamott's words, see "things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds."
And that's the best kind of break-in there is.