Ok! Here's Anne Lamott's take on the creative process of novel writing in Bird by Bird. Or, more accurately, my version of Anne Lamott's take on the creative process of novel writing, which is not quite as elegant as hers. Except, you know, when I quote hers.
There’s this daydream. It involves a bunch of things at once: being published; never having to deal with any job other than writing; having famous writers you have loved forever say nice things about you, including how they want to come to your birthday party; having a large, well lit study with a desk and ten bookcases and a couch and an espresso machine and a stereo system and a grand piano. And part of that is this idea that, eventually, writing will always be blissful. We will sit down, and then we will unleash magic rockets straight into the page. It will explode with excitement and literary goodness, like a muesli bar ad but tastier. In fact, we want that magic now, right now. And as we wander through days of self doubt and headaches and writing things that sound forced and crossing them out and then writing things that sound even worse, we start wondering if we’re doing something drastically wrong. And we long for the day when we’ll know the code off by heart and own all the secrets, and writing gets to be this wonderful and effortless explosion of stuff, all the time. You know?
It’s just a dream, folks.
People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed sentences as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. (Bird by Bird, pp.21-22)
There is no amazing secret to creating a ‘zone’ to write in. There are things that are definitely useful. You create a habit as best you can, sitting for a long time, day after day. And it might be an uphill battle, but persevere long enough and eventually something will happen from this. You keep at it, and you do your best to hear the voice in your head that is the story amongst all the other stuff going on.
You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your subconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. 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 clock, 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 – a scene, a locale, a character, whatever – 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, judgement, doom, guilt.
Yet 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, to 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. (pp. 6-7)
But how do we get started?
Lamott suggests breaking things down into small pieces, which she describes as ‘short assignments’. Things are easier to conquer when they’re bite-sized and easily doable, rather than when they’re big and vague and unwieldy. You could sit down and go, ok, time to begin my epically epic novel about epically huge stuff, about what happens when humanity are enslaved by ravenous geese and there’s a slave girl and she falls in love with a fallen angel vampiric werewolf wizard*. Or you could sit down and go, I’m just going to write this one scene, the one where the main character buys a new hat from a moose at the side of the road, and he warns her that the geese have been acting a bit strange recently.
These chunks fit together to make up a ‘shitty first draft.’ I love that she calls them that. Because god, yes. When you are in the middle of fighting with everything, and you’re sure you are that what you’re writing is complete rubbish and unworthy of ever being read by anyone in the whole entire world ever ever ever, it is great to be able to say, yes. This is a shitty first draft. It is full of diabolical sentences and plot holes and Things That Need to be Fixed**. But it is also necessary. Sometimes you have to write bad stuff – sometimes a great deal of bad stuff – in order to work out what the good stuff is. And you have to be free enough to let the bad stuff come tumbling out onto the page, wasting trees or making Microsoft Word blink at you grumpily or whatever, because more often than not, there are the seeds to awesomeness buried in all that compost. But in order to get to the awesomeness, you have to produce the compost too.
Rereading can be handy. It’s a good way to put things into context, and to gain some sense of direction when starting anew for the day. Also, having a good long think can be a good thing too. Lamott emphasises moments of hesitation as useful, the moments where we sit caught between the story and the blank page. That doesn’t have to mean being stuck. We reread, we think, and we find a pathway in:
This is how it works for me: I sit down in the morning and reread the work I did the day before. Then I wool-gather, staring at the blank page or off into space. I imagine my characters, and let myself daydream about them. A movie begins to play in my head, with emotion pulsing underneath it, and I stare at it in a trancelike state, until words bounce around together and form a sentence. Then I do the menial work of getting it down on paper, because I’m the designated typist, and I’m also the person whose job it is to hold the lantern while the kid does the digging. What is the kid digging for? The stuff. Details and clues and images, invention, fresh ideas, an intuitive understanding of people. I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn’t even know what the kid is digging for half the time – but she knows gold when she sees it. (Bird by Bird, p.56)
What’s funny is that since I’ve started working on following Lamott’s advice, in accepting that the ‘zone’ is always going to be unstable territory, I’ve found it a lot easier to find my way into it. The fight will be hard some times and glorious other times, and god knows, there’s so much bad stuff I have to write in order to get to the good stuff. But in writing with that awareness, in giving myself permission to write badly, I’ve found it a lot easier to write well. There are good stories there, always. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of the way.
*Yeah. I am totally writing that novel, in case you’re wondering.
**I always start lists of these things that I have to go back and fix up, then forget what I did with them, then start new lists of new stuff. I sometimes come up with as many sentences that need fixing as there are sentences, but anyway.