Anne Lamott, Blogging, and Psychotherapy

Writing and life, one short assignment at a time

Posted Feb 04, 2015

Anne Lamott/Wikipedia; public domain

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Bird by Bird is early Lamott, before she became so successful and those rascally rabbits at Riverhead Books put the pressure on her to churn out books so darn fast. This book is more like a slow cooker meal; one can tell that the flavors, ideas, and wisdom have had enough time to come together to produce something with depth and complexity. As a writer and a seeker of wisdom about life, I loved it.

There are so many wonderful ideas in Bird by Bird but one in particular really resonates with me. Lamott says that writing is a very daunting process, so it is important to take it one small assignment at a time. Just like you scale a glacier by putting one foot in front of the other, you write a novel by writing one short assignment after another. Or, as Lamott’s father said to her 10-year old brother, you get your school report done when you describe bird by bird, one bird at a time.

moxylyn/deviant art; public domain

To give a sense of scale for her recommendation, Lamott says that the breadth of such a short assignment should be only as much as one can see through a one-inch picture frame. She has such a picture frame sitting on her desk, as a reminder of her own wisdom.

While there was no such thing as blogging when Anne Lamott penned these words, I think her wisdom applies. Like all writers, bloggers want to say something important, something useful, or at least something interesting. When staring at the blank Word document, it is helpful to keep in mind the scale: 600 words, 1000 tops. Make them the best words you have and call it good enough.

As a blogger, such a short assignment is actually quite a tall order for there is so much that I want to say. I want to explain the complexities of psychological life; I don’t want to leave anything out. Honestly, it breaks my heart when I receive comments by readers who say, “But what about this?” or “This may be the case sometimes but you are missing the most important part.” I want to pull out my hair in aggravation and write back in bold, italicized, 40 point font, “IT’S JUST A BLOG POST! I CAN’T ANSWER ALL THE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE UNIVERSE IN A SINGLE BLOG POST!” And then I think about the title of my blog, A Headshrinker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and hang my head with shame. I have overpromised to you and to myself.

Lamott reminds me that writing inevitably takes time—especially if it is about the deeper truths of life and especially if it is to be done well. I can’t fit a guide to the psychological galaxy in a one-inch picture frame. I must have the humility and the discipline to write one simple post today, in the hopes that a bigger picture will come together over time.

This idea is a helpful guide in psychotherapy as well. It is easy for both client and therapist to be drawn into the wish for a quick solution to life’s troubles. This is intensified because usually the person seeking therapy is in a lot of pain or distress. But if, like in writing, you come to therapy seeking the truth and want to make changes that are real and lasting, then you’ve got to do it the Lamott way. A 45-minute session is the size of a one-inch picture frame. The work of that 45-minute session is to discover, describe, and understand the psychological life of the client with as much clarity and detail as the two of you putting your heads together can.

One of my psychoanalytic supervisors described the scale of therapeutic work this way: all you need to offer is one good interpretation each session. In a four session a week analysis, that means four interpretations per week, 16 per month, and 200 per year. That kind of quality understanding really adds up and, over time, can make quite a difference.

Writing, blogging, and psychotherapy require persistence, patience, and humility. Melanie Klein said that change in psychoanalysis happens “bit by bit.” That’s Anne Lamott’s “bird by bird,” the blogger’s “post by post,” and my supervisor’s “interpretation by interpretation.” Go for the depth and the quality. Give the ingredients, the wisdom, and the insight time to come together and become something that matters.

Copyright 2015 by Jennifer Kunst, PhD

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This is just a taste of Jennifer's model for personal growth. To read more check out: Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out.