Writing on Writing – Anne Lamott


I came across this gem by Anne Lamott in her classic book on writing, Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  This paragraph seems to be about reading, but it is aimed at the writer. Our job is to fill these “small, flat rigid squares of paper” or the computer screens or e-readers, or magazines or newsprint or note cards with “worlds that sing to readers.”

 . . . for some of us books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.  Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave.  They show us what community and friendship mean; they teach us how to live and die.  They are full of all things that you don’t get in real life – wonderful lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat.  And quality of attention:  we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention.  An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded. I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.

Like all other writers about books on writing she instructs us to sit down and do it.  The following is a quote from an hilarious passage about getting started:

You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day.  This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.  . . . .You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so.  You begin rocking, just a little at first and then like a huge autistic child.  You look at the ceiling, and over at the closet, yawn, and stare at the paper again.  Then with your fingers poised on the keyboard you squint at an image that is forming in your mind . . . and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.  The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys.  They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom and guilt. . . .

And somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes and you begin to compose sentences.  You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story.  You are desperate to communicate or edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence to make real or imagined events come alive.  But you cannot will this to happen, It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work.  So you might as well just go ahead and get started.

I plan to read these two passages along with a prayer from Acceptable Words, Prayers for the Writer every morning before I  start writing.  A writing life is all about perspective.

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