Tomorrow night, I’ll interview writer Anne Lamott
at Symphony Space
here in New York City. I’m a longtime fan of her work, so am looking forward to hearing her speak about her writing and her process.
It’s especially gratifying for me to do this interview, because years ago, when I was still in law school, Anne Lamott and I were both bridesmaids in my college roommate’s wedding. I was so intimidated by her, a Real Writer, that I don’t think I spoke two words to her the entire time. The intense discomfort I felt around writers was one clue that helped me realize that I wanted to be a writer, myself.
So, in honor of Anne Lamott, here’s a tips list summarizing, very briefly, some of the points she makes in her terrific book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
- Write regularly, whether you feel like writing or not, and whether you think what you’re writing is any good or not.
- Give yourself short assignments. Keep it manageable so you don’t get overwhelmed.
- Write sh**ty first drafts. (I’m not being prissy about the word choice, just don’t want to get hung up in spam filters.) Don’t expect a piece of writing to flow perfectly out of your fingers on the first go. Of all the points she makes, many people seem to find this one the most helpful.
- Let the Polaroid develop; in other words, observe, watch, listen, stay in the moment, until you understand what you want to write about.
- Know your characters.
- Let the plot grow out of the characters.
- “If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing…it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately. You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right.”
- Figure out ways to jam the transmissions from Radio KFKD, the interior station feeding doubts and criticism into your brain. Especially about jealousy of other writers.
- Have pen and paper ready at all times. (She always carries an index card.)
- Call around. Ask for help.
- Start a writing group.
- Write in your own voice.
- Being published brings a quiet joy, but it doesn’t transform your life, and eventually you have to write again.
- “Devotion and commitment will be their own reward.”
One line from Bird by Bird was helpful to me recently. I’ve been feeling a bit panicky about whether I’m going to be able to figure out the structure for my next book; I’m always anxious about a project until I get my structure nailed down. I took heart from her admonition: “Try to calm down, get quiet, breathe, and listen.”
What strategies for writing have you found to be helpful? Or for getting yourself to sit down and work on any big project?
Speaking of writing: one of my secret goals, as I've been working on my own happiness projects, has been to inject the phrase "happiness project" into the common parlance. Today, I noticed, the New York Times ran an article entitled "The Happiness Project" that had nothing to do with my work. Victory!