Is writing a part of your life or is writing your life? Is it an escape or a way to further experience the little details of every day? These are the questions that plague me as I place another book face down on my nightstand, feeling more attuned who I am than ever before, the aftertaste of the words still buzzing beneath my skin. Feeling more certain of my fate.
As I opened my copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, I expected it to be good. In fact, after all the hype I’d heard from other writers, I expected it to be great. Before I’d even finished the intro, I realized what it would actually be to me–jarring. Altering. Molding. It’s funny how words can do that. But then, isn’t that why we do this?
Bird by Bird was less a book about the craft of writing and more a guide to living as a “writer.” And I say “writer” like I might say “alcoholic” or “schizophrenic.” Schizophrenic. In fact, Lamott referred to writer’s neuroses as mental illnesses more than once. And it was these mental illnesses that she pulled apart and analyzed for us so that we might better understand ourselves. She concluded the introduction with, “As of today, here is almost every single thing I know about writing,” and with hilarious insight, that’s what she told me–everything I’d always wanted to know about writing but didn’t expect to find.
Lamott is a teacher in every sense of the word. She gets paid to guide writers to their most honest and polished work (At least I hope she still does. I don’t want to imagine a world where she isn’t standing over a sweating student, telling them to write it anyway). She also teaches through living the life of a writer and guiding others along the path by documenting her journey. In Bird by Bird, Lamott’s lessons unfolded like she was standing in front of me speaking it aloud, teaching me everything from how to take writing “bird by bird” to getting help throughout the process to publication, which she admits isn’t all we hope it will be. The subtitle really does say it all: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I might only amend that to, Some Instructions on Writing Life, because that’s what I got from the book–how to change writing from a hobby to the life breath.
Anne Lamott has lived such an interesting and tragic life. She grew up in a household of readers and writers, which I think, based it on my own desires, every writer would have wished for if they’d known how much it would mean to them in later years. Literature was valued in her home, which is so different from the house I grew up in. I remember times when my dad used to tell me to put my books away, I was missing out on life. I can count on a single hand the books my parents read during my childhood. Literature didn’t mean as much to my family as “getting out into the real world” but by the time I was six years old, I’d had enough of the real world–drugs, abandonment, fear. I wanted to live in my books. I wanted to escape into stories to hide from life.
I’m not the only one. It always surprises me how many commonalities there are between writers. It’s like there are a perfect set of circumstances that, when combined, make a writer–a troubled childhood, introspective, introverted personality, hypersensitivity…
I often ask my students to scribble down in class the reason they want to write, why they are in my class, what is propelling them to do this sometimes-excruciating, sometimes-boring work. And over and over, they say in effect, “I will not be silenced again.” They were good children, who often felt invisible and who saw some awful stuff. But at some point they stopped telling what they saw because when they did, they were punished. Now they want to look at their lives–at life–and they don’t want to be sent to their rooms for doing so.
There was a lot I didn’t say growing up and a lot I still don’t say now. Lamott, even in book form, digs at you until you can’t avoid the painful parts of your past anymore. Until you have to write about them, to empty yourself and fill up your writing.
So I started writing Morning Pages where I wrote about my dreams or my feelings or my life or my story ideas and I kept a notebook nearby, especially while I read Bird by Bird, because I had to. Halfway into the first page of my reading each day, I had ideas on how to improve my novel or a short story I’d wanted to write forever but couldn’t make work (I’m writing this blog post in my journal right now). Somehow digging into myself, even the slightest bit, brought out the voices of my characters and the plots that wanted to be written. That’s where they all come from–within me.
And that’s what I learned–more than anything else–from Bird by Bird. To make writing a part of every moment of my day. Not to say, “this is my writing time and I’ll write only then.” Or, “this is my novel and I’ll write only that.” Instead, write about anything and everything at all times of day. Write down observations, thoughts, ideas, memories. Write it all down. You may use all of it or you may use none of it but the important thing is that you write it down. This is what we want to do but for whatever reason we don’t. It’s why ideas come to us even in the most inconvenient of times: because we’re writers and writing isn’t a one-or-two-hours-a-day thing. That’s why, when I say “writer,” I don’t mean someone who writes. Writer is as much a part of our overall makeup as being a redhead or a parent. It’s a way of life that makes up everything about who we are and the way we look at life, whether we realize it or not. It’s like there’s a deeper meaning just on the other side of the thin veil of what people want us to see and we’re determined to find it.
Whether or not you decide to read Bird by Bird (though I hope you will), I want to leave you with this quote from the last chapter:
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’s a revolutionary act–truth is always subversive.
The truth is, you can’t escape life through stories–writing or reading–as much as I wanted to. As much as you may want to. Life is a story. And the truth of life is found in our stories.