I finally finished Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, which I started, oh, months ago. I had a really hard time getting through it, which surprised me. I love Anne Lamott. I think she is witty and I love her irreverent reverence. I absolutely devoured her memoirs on faith. But this one. This one was difficult.
Here’s my first thought: even though I have made the bold claim that I am a writer, as I said in that months-ago post, I had trouble believing that this book was for me. More specifically, I felt like many of Lamott’s suggestions were geared toward writing fiction, which I don’t do, and honestly have no desire to do.
Another thought is that I enjoyed each individual chapter as a stand-alone essay, but reading them all together was too much. They didn’t really connect to each other. There was no sort of cohesive narrative arch. I think had I read any individual one in, say, a college class, I would have been blown away. It was just reading them all in aggregate that swamped me.
But as always, I managed to glean wisdom from Lamott (4 Kindle pages of highlights, to be exact). Here are the two passages that I think are most relevant to my writing on this blog (which is the main writing I do right now):
Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will be four billion different renditions. Some people will sing it spontaneously, with a lot of soulful riffs, while others are going to practice until they could sing it at the Met. Either way, everything we need in order to tell our stories in a reasonable and exciting way already exsists in each of us.
What this reminds me is that, every time I feel like I don’t have anything to add to the blogosphere, every time I think there are a million other people writing the same things I am–I am wrong. Because no one else is me. And Me is worth writing.
And here’s the other nugget:
If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don't worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you're a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act--truth is always subversive.
Taking a stand on things is hard for me. It seems to have become harder as I’ve gotten older. Sure, I have opinions, and on every day things like what to have for dinner I have absolutely zero problem expressing them. But when it comes to politics, and religion, and economics, I clam up. I’m scared to express myself for fear of being shot down, exposed as ignorant, or discredited. But I’ve enjoyed the banter that has stemmed from my more decisive posts here, and Lamott’s directive here encourages me to keep trying. My voice may not be that of an expert joining the conversation, but as she told me above, it is still mine, and I have a right and obligation to use it.
I may revisit Lamott’s book as I keep writing, in bits and pieces as the mood strikes me, but I would have a hard time recommending it as a whole. Maybe keep it by the computer and flip through when you’re feeling stuck, or keep it near the bed to open when you can’t sleep. Definitely don’t count it out, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself slogging through. I’m glad I finished it, though, and it’s given me some things to ponder.
Bonus review: I LOVE Anne Lamott on Twitter. Her wit is well-suited to 140 characters. Be forewarned, she is unapologetically liberal, so don’t get your feelings hurt if you’re on the flip side of that coin. But she sure does have some gems.