I just finished reading bird by bird by Anne Lamott, a book about writing. A friend recommended it, and I’m glad she did. Every once in a while, I like to plunge into a writing book to remind myself of the many things I’ve learned and sometimes do on auto-pilot, but sometimes sort of forget. When I remember them again, I apply them more religiously. A good thing.
For me, bird by bird is less a book on the techniques of writing and more a book about living and breathing writing. Yes, she tells us what works for her and what doesn’t, but it’s not a “how to” book that lists how to plot, do character wheels, use active verbs, and choose POV wisely. Instead, Anne Lamott shares her passion for the written word, for sitting down and putting words on paper, for the days when everything you write sounds wonderful, and the days when everything sounds like crap. You can find her online at http://www.salon.com/writer/anne_lamott/ and get a taste of her voice, her style. Clearly, she’s a literary writer. Even her technique is character driven.
Everyone who knows me or my writing knows that I’m a plot-driven person. I started out writing mystery short stories, expanded to fantasy/dark fantasy stories, and finally dipped my toes into novels. And that was NOT a smooth transition. I couldn’t force my first effort into more than 20,000 words–and they were nothing to brag about. I couldn’t any more have a story grow organically from characters and their needs back then than I could close my eyes, wiggle my nose, and peek in the mirror and look like I Dream of Jeannie (which was my goal at one time)–a little hard when I’m 5’10” with brown eyes, but hey, hope springs eternal, right? Character-driven was beyond me back then. First of all, I lived way too much in my own head. I had no deep or visceral life experience to speak of, and I was pretty, damn private. I couldn’t talk about my OWN emotions, let alone dig into someone else’s. But the longer you live, the more life kicks you around, and after a while, you have plenty of ups and more downs than you want, and you realize everyone else does, too, and it HELPS to talk about them. These days, I’m less afraid of failure. Failure’s just an attempt I haven’t gotten right yet. Life makes you a better writer.
I’m still a plot-driven, goal-driven person. I think it’s in my wiring. But my characters, like me, no longer have to hide their flaws and strive for perfection. My flaws have shaped me as much as my virtues, so I have to give them some credit. And I’ve survived enough bumps to know I’m stronger than I realized. But no matter how thick-skinned and pragmatic I’ve grown, I still haven’t worked past the rhythms of my writing–the excitement of starting a new book or story, the feeling of desperation somewhere in the late middle, the relief when the thing’s finally finished. I hold my breath when I show it to my critique partners. I tell myself I did what I wanted to do with that story. A self-defense wall rears its ugly head when they tell me it’s less than perfect. Then I look at the pages again and they’re usually right. When I finish THAT rewrite, I feel like the book’s pretty good. But when it goes online and readers download it, the whole ritual starts again. And that’s when I realize I’m not as thick-skinned as I thought.
Anne Lamott captures the doubts and struggles of a writer extremely well, and she’s so honest about it, and so FUNNY, it was a joy empathizing with her. She nailed my writing journey, and that was as refreshing for me as reminders for my “how to” lists.