I apologize to my small but loyal following of three readers. I have been trying to post several times a week, but alas, the fates were conspiring against me this past week. Jack has been waking up screaming from his naps (Nightmares? Night terrors? Gas?! I have no idea!) and refusing to go back to sleep, so my writing time was cut short. I'm also deeply entrenched in my new novel (currently on page 77 - or 22,000 words) so I've been using any time I have to work on it. But I've been meaning to write this post on Bird by Bird for a while now, so with the help of a trusted babysitter - aka Sesame Street - I'm going to attempt it...
As far as formal education in writing goes, I am decidedly lacking. I took one journalism class my final semester in college, which inspired me to pursue a career in journalism after I finished my Master's degree, and I took a travel writing class at the UC San Diego Extension that I thoroughly enjoyed, but I've never taken a class in fiction writing. In fact, my first attempt at fiction (other than during childhood) was the novel I wrote in 2003-04. I've also read very few books on writing, probably because I'm terrified to learn all of the things I should be doing, and all of the things I'm doing wrong. But my friend Alexis had recently recommended Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and quite serendipitously, a book club member chose Lamott's Imperfect Birds for book club this month. So I headed to the library and picked up both books, along with Stephen King's On Writing. Time for a little education.
Over all, I really enjoyed Bird by Bird. Lamott is a very funny writer, although her books tend to deal with serious subject matter (Imperfect Birds is the story of a mother, step-father, and daughter in the Bay Area struggling with the daughter's drug use, sexual promiscuity, and lies. It reminded me a lot of Beautiful Boy, actually, which is non-fiction but takes place in the same general place and time; both books are heartbreaking and absolutely terrifying for parents).
One of the first lines in the book that really stood out to me was actually an E. L. Doctorow quote: "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." This is something I've been trying to explain to my "editor," Sarah, but haven't been able to put nearly as succinctly. Sarah is under the impression that I need to outline every detail of my novels before I begin. While I do have to give Sarah credit in the case of my new novel (when you're writing fantasy, you'd better have all the rules of your fantasy world laid out ahead of time, or things are going to get all kinds of crazy later on), I still agree with this basic principal, which ties into what Lamott calls the "shitty first draft." Sometimes it's more important to write - to write ANYTHING, even if it's terrible - than to plan and outline until you're blue in the face. There is something to be said for writing for writing's sake. As she goes on to say: "What people somehow (inadvertently, I'm sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here -- and, by extension, what we're supposed to be writing."
Coincidentally, after I'd written my post about the metro, I came across this paragraph in the book: "So much of writing is about sitting down and doing it every day, and so much of it is about getting into the custom of taking in everything that comes along, seeing it all as grist for the mill ... Instead of feeling panicked by these lowlifes on the subway, you notice all the details of their clothes and bearing and speech. Maybe you never quite get to the point where you think, 'Ah--so that's what a gun looks like from this end.' But you take in all you can, as a child would, without the atmospheric smog of most grown-up vision."
I also really appreciated Lamott's advice on whom you should send your novel to before you submit it to an agent or editor. Sending your work to other people is very scary, even if it's someone you know very well and whose opinion you value. Sarah and I got into a little argument while I was outlining the new novel, after I'd sent her something I was pretty excited about, and she immediately began our follow-up discussion with, "Well, here's what I would have done."
Here's Lamott's take on the situation: "I know what a painful feeling it is when you've been working on something forever, and it feels done, and you give your story to someone you hope will validate this and that person tells you it still needs more work. You have to, at this point, question your assessment of this person's character and, if he or she is not a spouse or a lifelong friend, decide whether or not you want them in your life at all. Mostly I think an appropriate first reaction is to think that you don't. But in a little while it may strike you as a small miracle that you have someone in your life, whose taste you admire (after all this person loves you and your work), who will tell you the truth and help you stay on the straight and narrow, or find your way back to it if you are lost."
It also helps if that person has their work shot down by someone they trust and admire right after she has just shot your work down. I now understand that Sarah was just trying to make my novel as good as it can be; Sarah now understands that there are ways to tell people you think their work needs improvement while still being sensitive to that person's feelings. Mostly, I am grateful that I have a small group of kind, intelligent, and generous friends and family members willing to read my material.
Lamott is also a parent, so her commentary on toddlers seemed particularly relevant. "Your work as a writer, when you are giving everything you have to your characters and to your readers, will periodically make you feel like the single parent of a three-year-old, who is, by turns, wonderful, willful, terrible, crazed, and adoring. Toddlers can make you feel as if you have violated some archaic law in their personal Koran and you should die, infidel ... But they are always yours, your books as well as your children ... Your three-year-old and your work in progress teach you to give. They teach you to get out of yourself and become a person for someone else. This is probably the secret to happiness. So that's one reason to write. Your child and your work hold you hostage, suck you dry, ruin your sleep, mess with your head, treat you like dirt, and then you discover they've given you that gold nugget you were looking for all along."
It seems fitting that as I'm typing this Jack is literally banging on a drum on top of my treadmill. We gave up on Sesame Street a long time ago.
Lamott offers this little pearl of wisdom regarding turning real people into characters in your novels without being sued for libel:
"If you disguise this person carefully so that he cannot be recognized by the physical or professional facts of his life, you can use him in your work. And the best advice I can give you is to give him a teenie little penis so he will be less likely to come forth."
The only thing I disliked about Bird by Bird was Lamott's discussion of the disappointment that can come with being a published author. I know Lamott is trying to prepare her students (she teaches a writing class, and Bird by Bird is basically that class in book form), to tell them that if they are writing for the promise of fortune and fame, that they are most likely going to be disappointed. She goes on to talk about her own personal experiences with publishing, the highs and lows, how you may have a couple of book parties or good reviews, but along with all that comes the negative reviews and the lack of anticipated recognition and praise. I understand all this, I really do. But it brings me back to my recent post about people only having negative things to say when your baby takes its first steps. Yes, it may have a lot of negative consequences, but you know what would be far, far worse than that? If your child never walked at all. And I'm willing to bet that Lamott would take all the crap that may come along with being a published author over never getting published at all in a heartbeat. And who knows, one of the people in her class (or reading her book) COULD go on to be the next big thing. They could get a million dollar publishing deal and receive glowing reviews, and getting their novel published could actually be the best thing that ever happens to them. So please, Anne, don't rain on my parade! Let me have my dream that getting published will be an amazing experience if I'm ever lucky enough for it to happen to me. If it sucks, well, then I can write a book about that one day, too.