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.

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