Bird by Bird: On Writing & Honesty


bird-by-bird

What does it mean to be a writer? Ask anyone who practices the craft. You might hear several answers, because people have different reasons.

Anne Lamott’s memoir Bird by Bird offers a response I believe few would disagree with:

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.

Lamott offers advice on matters such as outlining, but she makes sure we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture while fussing over technicalities. Our obligation is to tell the truth, the truths of our readers and of the human race.

But I write fiction, you might say. Everything is made up. So do I. I’ve yet to try heavy worldbuilding; however, soon I will. Even then, my story won’t be an untruth. It’s set in a realm that’s very real to me.

I have yet to meet a devoted author who hasn’t felt their dream world as if they lived in it. When a writer puts soul into their story, they’re telling the truth about themselves, using words to help it be seen by an audience.

It would be nice to have thousands of readers, but it’s still a story, even if no one has read it. It would be convenient to make a living off of it, but I can’t bet on that. Lamott believes, and I do as well, that any writer who wants to write well should desire nothing more than to tell their truth.

Formerly a creative writing teacher, Lamott offers advice to improve our craft. By means of parables and flashbacks, she instructs without sounding like an instruction manual. I highlighted sentences so I can go over them again, but three tips stood out to me most.

First, she instructed her students to write 300 words daily. I found a notebook and resolved to fill a page every day, no matter how tired I am. One page seems a small goal when you start, but it’s comforting to see progress as the days pass.

Secondly, Lamott’s resolve about honest writing is powerful:

Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul.

She tells us to take the truths that frighten us, spinning them into tales that make an impact. Even if we change names, truth remains the core of it. Readers feel it between the lines. A writer’s job is to tell the truth.

Finally, her most unpopular advice is that publishing can be overrated. Lamott made sure to warn her students that contracts don’t take away Writer’s Block. We will never be happy if we write for publication. We should write because we love it.

Writing can be bittersweet. On days when it’s hard to put words on paper, we are tempted to quit and find an easier hobby. I don’t think true writers can quit for long. Even when we aren’t writing, the worlds we write are a part of us.

Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it, however you can, and you will be richly rewarded.

Bird by Bird reminds us that writing can drive us mad, but it’s worth embracing this madness. It reminds us that fiction is never a lie, encourages us to soldier through rewrites and bad reviews because we’re storytellers.

I believe any writer should read it at least once. Let us never lose sight of the honesty that characterizes our work; we owe the world our truths.

A Place of Light


This is another excerpt from my journal that I would like to share. It needs editing, but I liked it, and hope you will too!


There’s a lot of light in this place.

It’s a haven of pure air and high spirits. It makes me feel like there’s no darkness left in my reality; by this I know it can’t be reality.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Perhaps I’m on a different plane.

It has to be a dream.

I sit on the ground and let it soak in – energy, inspiration, peace. Could this be the place ideas come from?

Could this weightlessness be the root of my inspiration?

Closing my eyes, I search my mind, seeking ideas for my next poem…here in this place of light.

On Storytelling


What does it mean to be a storyteller?

Stories are places of refuge for people frightened by the realities of this world. They provide rest when we are too weak to dwell on reality.

Story is salve for the wounds inflicted by life.

A well-told story comforts us. We seek depth and meaning. We find both in a book.

We are cheered by the thought that the human mind, while capable of terrible things, also brings forth great beauty.

Fiction is a playground for the human imagination, which needs exercise like any other muscle. The storyteller cares for the playground.

We are gardeners charged with planting wonder and safety; these might come in the form of a novel or a poem. This skill is learned through observation and practice.

It is difficult: many of us curse the craft as much as we love it.

Storytelling is not easy, but human beings need story more than they care to admit.

Any garden has to be tended.

The Garden and the Trilogy


Sometimes the cure to Writer’s Block—and to Reader’s Burnout—is to do something else. Some of you might have known that already, but I’ve been stubborn for years, refusing to think myself capable of taking up another hobby with the passion I felt for literature.

Then I took up gardening.

The dining room window looks like a greenhouse; I imagine my books looking on, dejected, as I speak to my cilantro or asters. The books are wondering what could have distracted me so much.

Some of my enthusiasm might stem (no pun intended) from reluctance to finish editing. It’s necessary, I know, but it’s never been my favorite thing. If given the choice between editing or planting a flower…

This doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting Alice’s novel. I’ve made a great deal of progress since December: I drafted it, made an outline, rewrote it and started edits. The draft is decent. I have even shared it with trusted people.

The reason for this progress is my decision to include logic in my fantasy universe. A year ago I planned dozens of stories with no order for them. There was no way to discern which plot arc was more important.

Now, I’ve divided the story into trilogies, making them easier to keep in order. It’s like taming a jungle or planning a garden. Hopefully the series will be nicer to look at and easier to navigate.

Today, I edit the second-to-last chapter of Alice’s book. After that I’ll put the novel aside and focus on something new. Maybe it’ll be my garden, or maybe I’ll start the second book. After all, too much planning isn’t good, either.

I hope your springtime has been lovely so far!