Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Bird by Bird and Refuelling


First off, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I’d rather curl up with a good piece of fiction any day than a book that dissects the writing process, so I expected I’d need to force myself to read it. Not at all.

Bird by Bird provides an honest and often humorous look at writing. Anne Lamott spends much of the book stripping away the illusion that there’s anything remotely glamorous about the life of a writer, whether published or not. She’s self-deprecating and funny and open, even while discussing some of the darker issues involved with writing and life in general. She doesn’t get into a lot of technical advice. Instead, she focuses on a realistic approach to various aspects of writing.

There are many, many things I could share about this book, like how it literally made me cackle numerous times, or how practical it is, but I’ll keep it to a minimum by focusing on the bit that affected me most.

Anne Lamott addresses writer’s block in the following hilarious, yet profound way:

“The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.” (p. 178)

This was a HUGE revelation for me, the equivalent of a much needed smack in the head. Being disciplined about writing certainly involves sacrifice, but there comes a point when you could be giving up too much, both personally and in terms of fuel for writing. Your job as a writer is to pour your heart and soul into the stories you write, but how can you do that when you’re emotionally drained and your well of experience has gone dry?

The author’s advice is to accept that you aren’t in a productive or creative period and use that time to fill up again. She encourages you to live like you’re dying, so that your time is fuller. She recommends participating in ordinary life, because that will refill you with “observations, flavors, ideas, visions, memories…” (p. 179). Taking the time to enjoy simple things and being truly present in those moments is not only healthy, but necessary for the creative process.

Sometimes I need to just crawl up out of that deep dark writing pit and enjoy taking part in normal life for a while—not just to preserve my sanity, but for the good of whatever writing project I’m working on. I’m no good to myself, anyone else, or my writing if I let myself run on empty. Feeding my soul will nourish my imagination which will enable me to write.

Anybody else have any revelations while reading Bird by Bird or another craft book?

14 comments:

  1. That advice reminds me of one of the chapters in '7 Habits of Highly Effective People'. They called it 'sharpening the saw'. The idea is that if you're dull and worn out, you can't work to your full potential. Some R&R really is a good thing!

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    1. That's a great analogy!If you're dull or empty, instead of quality work all you end up with is a whole lot of frustration. And while taking the time to refuel can sometimes feel frivolous in the middle of a project, in the end you might get more done in less time. It's something that should be totally obvious, but I think sometimes you really do need to stop and give yourself permission to relax or just switch gears for a while.

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  2. That's a great pull from that book. I'm still working my way through this book, but I love her voice and her advice. The "Shitty First Drafts" chapter is my favorite so far.

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    1. That was a great chapter! It's reassuring to know that seasoned authors still churn out total garbage on the first try, although if I ever make it to the seasoned author category I'm not so sure I'd still feel reassured at that point. :)

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  3. Ahhh so I've jumped through the posts of everyone who has read Bird by Bird this month and it's settled. I NEED to read this book, very soon. That quote about writers' block feels like one of those things I've always known (I've always been suspicious of the idea of writers' block), but never understood. Also, I'm now following you. :)

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    1. People often suggest tricks and exercises for dealing with writer's block, but I think Anne Lamott's comment made me realize what the root of the problem is in the first place, and that's probably even more helpful. Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I'm so glad you liked the book. Great post!

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    1. Thanks! I can see why you've read it over and over. I'm sure I'll refer to it many times too.

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  5. I've heard about this! But it's one I haven't read. And I LOVE the concept of just being empty... you know, I wholly agree with that...

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    1. I haven't read any of Anne Lamott's other books, but I liked much of what she had to say about the writing process. :)

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  6. I really love Bird by Bird. I think it was the first writing book I read where I felt that the book had been written for ME. My favorite image is the one at the end about building sand castles out of dreams and hoping that if we build them well enough, the sea won't wash them away. Plus, Anne Lammot is from my home town :)

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    1. I really liked the sand castle analogy too. That's so cool she's from your home town!

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  7. Great post, Erin! I think there is so much truth to what you've written here (and what Anne Lamott had to say about it). At the conference this weekend one of the keynotes quoted someone as saying "Interesting people write interesting books". That really stood out to me because it challenged me to lead a more interesting life. As you know, I tend to hole up and not leave the house for days at a time and I'm not involved in a whole lot. How can I expect to write interesting stories when my life is just meh? This feels like a similar revelation to the one you write about here. Definitely food for thought. :)

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    1. I should write that quote down somewhere. Like on a post-it note that I can stick to my forehead as a reminder. Wish the snow and cold would go away already because it would be much easier to do interesting things if it was nice outside (Assuming there are interesting things to do around here). Then maybe I'd get out of hibernation mode already!

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