I’m suspicious of writing guides. Most of them are either how-to books, which take a writing-by-numbers approach to the craft of writing, or they’re wafty, spiritual guides that reek of incense. I have found some amid the dross that stand out and that I’ve paid homage to. Recently, I hit on one which I already feel will be the touchstone guide for the rest of my life. Lots of people had mentioned Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to me over the years, and I decided to act on their enthusiastic recommendations.
Turns out they were right to sing its praises. It’s just the right mix of earthy and inspirational. It performs the rare feat of making me laugh, and on almost every page, I pump my fist in recognition. It’s like talking to a slightly wiser, slightly smutty friend, with all the comfort that that brings. But it does a great deal more than that. It dispenses nuggets of wisdom that you can carry through into your writing process.
Book cover originally from Anchor Books.
Here are a few gems I have mined so far.
Listen to your broccoli
There’s a little voice inside all of us that tells us what’s true, and if we follow it, we’ll know exactly what to do. But it can be hard to hear that voice amid the chatter of voices inside and outside our heads. When we do hear it, we don’t always trust that it’s right, but if we take time to listen to it, we’ll have the tools we need to write our stories. Lamott calls this voice your broccoli, based on the idea that broccoli is a vegetable we may resist, but it’s good for us.
Relax your writing muscle
When a part of us is hurt, our muscles tighten to protect us. When Lamott had her tonsils out, she was still in immense pain a week later. Rather than give her more painkillers, the nurse told her to chew gum. She took the advice and felt a terrible ripping sensation, but then the pain was gone. Similarly, you need to relax our writing muscle, and the only way to do that is by writing. If you’re willing to endure the ripping sensation, the words will flow.
Put your characters first
Plots are sexy, and they make bestsellers. If you’re a character-driven writer, you may feel that your story may be overshadowed. Lamott recommends letting your characters speak. Listen to what they say, and as they develop, they will provide you with the details of your plot. Handled right, a plot based on psychological warfare between characters can really sizzle.
In a way, Lamott isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. She’s simply reminds us that we have the tools we need for writing success within us, and that the only person we need to listen to is ourselves. She tells us this in a way that resonates, that helps us understand these truths not just with our rational minds, but with our hearts, where it really matters.
Have you read Bird by Bird? Did it make you pump your fist too, or did you feel it reeked of incense? Are there any other guides that you use as a touchstone?