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.]

April: A Sense of Integrity

Not that I was enormously lacking in integrity before April – used car salesman I am not.

Used Car Salesman

This is more about recovering a true you-ness, something like what I mentioned in this post.

Synchronicitously, (is that a word? it is now) I keep encountering these two quotes from e.e. cummings of late:

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

e. e. cummings layout

“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

This is in some measure related to the Christian teaching that your truest self – the one God sees when he looks at you – is who he created you to be, not who you have so far made of yourself.
This chapter, then, is about the recovery or even discovery of that truest self – not all in a rush, but slowly, peeling back the layers of damage, time and grime until the masterpiece beneath is revealed.

Painting damaged by fire

So, other than the Reading Deprivation, of which I fancy you have heard enough to last you a lifetime (it’s certainly going to last me) what did this chapter involve?

The first task was to imagine your ideal environment. Booooks… Then you were to find an image (or make one, if, unlike me, you have more artistic ability than a meerkat on bad acid) and put this in your writing area. Ditto for your favourite season.

So, my little writing nook (the product of an unofficial Artist’s Date with furniture-moving) is now embellished with a cosy hobbit kitchen and an autumnal canyon-scape.

Four Seasons by Alfons Mucha, circa 1895

Also a picture of my Censor, which I keep on the floor – got to keep that voice in its place!

Then I had to go back and forth in time. “Describe yourself at eighty.” Frankly, I have no idea where my life is going and I doubt it’ll go that far, but if I do make eighty I bet I’ll be one of those acute old ladies who says what she thinks you need to hear and doesn’t mind how excruciatingly embarrassed you are by it.

And then memories of being eight. Not much came to mind, and I was a little hazy as to the actual year (I might have been seven) but I remember having purple and green dragon slippers with pink mohawks, and wearing jammies the colour of lemon meringue pie.

And speaking of pie, there was another look at the life pie – as munted as ever, and definitely needing work in the area of work. World's Ugliest Pie
As Task 9 asked, “Look at one situation in your life that you feel you should change but haven’t yet. What is the payoff for you in staying stuck?”
Well, in this case, the payoff is pay. Man does not live on bread alone, but it certainly helps.

My Extended Artist’s Date plan (Task 7) starts with a morning going the rounds of the second hand clothing shops, moves on to a leisurely lunch followed by a walk on the beach and winds up curled on the couch with a hot chocolate and a classic movie.

(Poll: would you say that “Plan a small vacation for yourself… Get ready to execute it” means
a) plan it and then do it
b) plan it, and then await instructions to carry it out
c) plan it, and then prepare to shoot it at dawn?)

I also wrote an Artist’s Prayer (Task 6) which I shall likely soon share – and hopefully start remembering to use.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

January: a Sense of Safety

At last, the long-awaited (by me at least) post about What I Did This Month. (Last month.) With the Artist’s Way, that is.

Since I didn’t have my Good Idea until January was well onto its downhill run, there was not much time in which to work through Chapter One: Recovering a Sense of Safety.

The fundamental push of this chapter is to give you back the childlike feeling of being able to puddle about and create things without the terror that Mrs Danvers (or Col. Gaddafi) will leap out of the woodwork shouting “how dare you make such a repulsive mess, you miserable miscreant?!” (although really, I don’t think either of them had quite that kind of vocabulary).

In order to accomplish this, you confront the nasty critical voices of your past, and face them down with all the nice positive things you have heard, gleaned or discovered about your artist-self – or, if you have had a particularly hard go of it in that respect, the simple, stubbornly defiant statement that you have the right to create.

So nyah nyah to you.

Fortunately for the tight time-frame, I had gone through most of the exercises before. Naturally, some of the results of my exercising are not fit for public consumption (I know who lurks in the shadows of this blog) but I thought I’d share a few snippets.

I am fortunate that I have had relatively few harsh words come my way (hiding your light under a bushel works well, if you don’t mind the smoke getting in your eyes) and a few quite nice ones. But there is still the self-sabotaging voice of the internal Resistance echoing round my cranium.

I don’t think discouragement needs to take the form of words to make us doubt ourselves. So maybe we need to consider things which are not words, though they are harder to pin down and rebut. Thought In Progress.

I confess, exercise six warmed the cockles of my heart – gathering together every scrap of positive reinforcement of my validity as a writer. Took nearly a whole page of my A5 repurposed diary.

I went on an artist date, too – I went to the shop at the corner and dropped my shiny gold coin into a slot. I turned the handle, and boing, boing, boing, out came my multi-hued bouncy ball. And of course, one cannot have a bouncy ball without bouncing it.

As C. S. Lewis so aptly said (or rather wrote), “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” My hero.

The ‘alternate lives’ exercise was another bundle of fun – I’ve always wanted to be one of these:
but I don’t know of any courts that are hiring.

I really struggled with the affirmations – not the basic mechanics of it, but the meaning it. New Zealand is not one of the societies where blowing one’s own trumpet is encouraged, or even tolerated. Self-deprecation is the order of the day.

So in order to say something like “I am a channel for God’s creativity, and my work comes to good” without a trace of sarcasm is a feat which more or less requires the wearing of a funny hat with bells on.

I should make me one.

My favourite affirmation (of the ones I came up with myself) said simply this: I am meant to be a dreamer.

Next week month – that is, this month (already a quarter gone!) I shall look at recovering a sense of identity. (Who, me?)