Bird By Bird

by Anne Lamott.

This is so not your usual book on how to be a writer, but I did find it enormously encouraging. (Don’t take my word for it, read it yourself. Really.)

For example, that feeling you get when you finish your first draft (at last! hurrah!) and then look back and realise it’s so bad you now live in terror of dying before you can fix it, because people might think you honourably disembowelled yourself from the shame of producing such putridity.

In short, Anne Lamott says it’s ok to be pathologically self-doubting and insecure as a writer. She even suggests that this is quite common among writers, along with such traits as hypochondria and melodramatic tendencies. (Moi?)

She’s witty and funny and erudite and casually well-read (“I scuttled across the screen like Prufrock’s crab”) and really easy to read.
Most of all, she is encouraging.

The flailing first draft, she says is “the child’s draft… let it romp all over the place”.

The writing is on the wall
No-one will see it. Unless you die before the rewrite. (Try to avoid this.)

And as for all the shouting and hissing in your head (not the characters, but the voice Julia Cameron identifies as the Censor), Anne Lamott recognises this can be more than one voice. And here’s what she suggests you do with them:

Mouse in a jar

That’s right.
Shrink them down to mouse size and plunk them in a jar. Let them squeak as much as they please in there – you’re not listening.

Another interesting suggestion: “write a book back to V.S. Naipaul or Margaret Atwood or Wendell Berry or whoever it is who most made you want to write, whose work you most love to read. Make it as good as you can.”

Who would that be for you? On the most-love-to-read side for me would be perhaps P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Terry Pratchett. (Sir, Dame & Sir. What does that tell you?)

Have you ever experienced that anguished jealous ache of reading the perfect sentence and not having written it? Who did?

S812 - Green with envy

Crucially for those of us who frequently enjoy the writing less than the having written, Lamott points out that you do actually have to want to write – wanting to be published is not going to cut it. (Publication is not the answer, whatever the question of your life.)

Perseverance is tremendously important: “God is not a short-order cook”. She quotes E.L Doctorow: “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Lost in the woods

I wondered a while back whether each step we take, momentous as it may seem, is only to pull us up to where we can take the next.
I wonder it now more than ever.
I wonder what’s just beyond the headlights.

[Disclaimer: once again, I borrowed this book from the library – nobody paid me and I paid nobody. I consider this makes me a maximally unbiased reviewer. Others may differ.]

Do You Believe?

When did you start to believe in yourself as a writer?

I always knew I was good with words (ok, I can still remember asking my mother if sentences ended with a capital as well as started with them, but that was decades ago now).

Learning to Write

There were the occasional pieces in school publications, but that’s hardly conclusive evidence. You don’t necessarily have to be good to be published in a school mag, you just have to be better than the competition.

I think the first time I can remember seriously thinking of myself as a writer was a bit over twelve years ago now – it was supposed to be one of those school things where you tag along with a grown-up for a bit of work experience.

People work on computers at the Busy Internet computer center in Accra

Trouble was, we lived in the back of beyond where almost everyone was a hunter-gatherer (and distinctly averse to taking along annoying little white kids who might do something stupid like hurt themselves or scare the food away). The exceptions were my parents, and I was sufficiently formed as a person by then to know that their line of work was Not For Me.

So we had to Make Do and Make It Up.

My mother asked me what I would like to do, and I said I liked “writing, but-” and she said, well then, you can write an article. I will be your manager, you will have fixed hours (bit of a foreign concept in my life at that point) and you will write an article which you will then submit, etc etc. (Or words to that effect.)

Office Hours

I sat. I wrote.
I submitted the piece to my mother for her editorial approval, and the piece was eventually published in the in-house magazine of the organisation my parents worked with. Compliments ensued (I’m fairly sure they were intended as compliments, anyway), a cutting was made, and that was that.

But the writing bug had bit.

She scanned the page...

In one fell swoop my mother had moved writing in my mind from being something enjoyable but regrettably limited (rather like time spent lying about daydreaming) to being something that happened in the real world. Being a writer went from pie in the sky to an actual possibility. Yes, there were the hours, and the editor, and the annoying people calling you cute, but there was the writing!

The Dream

It was like telling a kid they could get a job as a professional ice-cream taster. Money for jam. (Well, jam, anyway. Negligible money.)

Mind you, my mother doesn’t hold with telling children pretty little lies – Santa Claus, for example. My parents never tried to tell me he was real, and this was a good thing, because living in a country with ‘security problems’ does not shape a child into the sort of person who takes ‘strange man is watching you and will creep into your bedroom while you’re asleep’ at all well.

creepy Santa

So she wasn’t going to tell me that writing jobs were easy to come by, and I did flirt with other ideas over the years – medicine, law, landscape architecture…

But I kept thinking of myself as a writer. I kept writing, here and there. I even earned a bit of money by my writing (slightly awkward when I was sent a cheque and had no bank account to deposit it into).

Throughout my life, my mother has been the one who has taught me to question my assumptions that I can’t do something, that a particular course of action is not open to me.
Often it is, but at a price I am not prepared to pay.
But sometimes it is a price I am prepared to pay, and the world opens out before me in a way I didn’t believe it could.

"Opened the door of faith..."

So if I never said it before: thank you.

Number Crunching

Sometimes progress is slow.
Sometimes it is very slow.
Sometimes it is so slow you don’t actually want to admit to yourself just how slow it is.

Imagine these:

Herd of tortoises

stampeding through this:

Peanut Butter Texture

and you get the idea.

But sooner or later you have to be brutally honest with yourself. The WIP isn’t going to write itself.
If things do write themselves at your place, you’ve got problems.

Rembrandt - Belshazzar's Feast - WGA19123

I have, over the *cough* years since I started working on Tsifira, accumulated about 18,734 words. (Including some of the excerpts I’ve removed for now, and some of the notes, but not all of them. Basically, I’m counting anything that was worth typing up.)

A novel is, of course, as long as a novel is long, but taking geographical distance as an indicator of word count (it’s a road story) I’m about a quarter to a third of the way there. Not knowing, of course, how many detours might occur.

One step after another

Say 80,000 as a guess.

In the just-over-two months since I started keeping a word count, I’ve written 1,651 words for Tsifira.*

80,000 – 18,734 = 61,266 words to go.

1,651 words ÷ 69 days recorded = 24 words per day (average, obviously).

61,266 words ÷ 24 words per day = 2,553 (to the nearest day).

So at this rate, I will finish the first draft in just under seven years.^

A Frenchman in America

There are only two alternatives.
One: give up.
Two: speed up.

I’m going to go with Two.

It is far easier to write that than to execute it (rather like Rasputin in that respect, although probably not in many others). How do you change gears in your mind and in your life? Is there a human equivalent of a clutch pedal?

I found an interesting exercise on A Cat of Impossible Colour – she got it from The Relaxed Writer.

Basically, you take ten minutes to write down one side of a piece of paper everything you don’t want your writing life to be like.
Then you write the opposite of each thing down the other side, and you figure out how you’re going to make that happen.

Moreless plus minus button

She recommends it as a beginning-of-the-year exercise, but I think we can all agree I shouldn’t wait that long, so I did it today.

I wrote the first column out by hand on folded paper, as instructed, but then I went off-road a bit, ending up with three columns instead of two, all typed up in a spreadsheet.
Column A: I Don’t Want
Column B: I Want
Column C: I Will

It was a bit disturbing to get such an insight into my own mind and misgivings. Apparently I struggle with self-doubt and fear the waste of time. I also fear guilt from doing/not doing, don’t take myself seriously enough as a writer, and tend to defer hope til tomorrow.


That’s rather a lot of personal insight to arrive at in ten minutes.

So, what will I do?
I will increase my writing time, guard it from erosion, and focus on my new-hatched target: finishing the first draft of Tsifira by the end of 2013.

By my calculations, I’ll need to write approximately ten thousand words each month. Two and a half thousand each week.
Half a thousand each working day.

Speed Writing

I can write over four hundred words in an uninterrupted morning half hour. Increase that to twice a week: eight hundred. Two hours, one evening a week: sixteen hundred. Total of 2,400, and the other hundred can be dashed off almost any time a moment presents itself.

It will require discipline and dedication. But it can be done.
I can do it.

And keep up a blog on the side 🙂

* I know this is pretty pitiful for a Work In (supposed) Progress, but over the same period I have also written roughly 6,000 words in Morning Pages, 8,000 words of blog post (not counting this one), 1,187 in a journal, 1,114 in letters and over 5,000 of Other. A total of nearly 23,000 words (that’s equivalent to 332 words a day, 7 days a week).

^ By which time publishing technology will have leapt beyond my comprehension and Neil Gaiman will be the only one who knows that the thing in my hand is called a fountain pen.