Thursday, March 04, 2010

The first in a blog series where I get to write about writing about writing

So, people! I signed up for a blog series, started by the wonderful Cory Jackson. We’re blogging every week about books on the strange, agonising and miraculous process we call writing, and we’re each focussing on a different book on the writing process. I chose Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, because there is no book on writing in the entire universe I love more, and because I’m constantly quoting it on the internet anyway. So now I can, like, quote it some more. Each week we’ll be looking at a different topic and how the books approach it. Also, if you do some blogging of your own about your take on things and leave a link in Cory’s comments, you could win a book on writing.

Now, on to this week’s topic! We're looking at writers as artists: how do you define yourself as a writer? Are genre writers artists?

Let's begin with lots of quotes, because quotes make the world go round.

Writing taught my father to pay attention; my father in turn taught other people to pay attention and then to write down their thoughts and observations. His students were the prisoners at San Quentin who took part in the creative-writing program. But he taught me, too, mostly by example. He taught the prisoners and me to put a little bit down on paper every day, to read all the great books and plays we could get our hands on. He taught us to read poetry. He taught us to be bold and original and to let ourselves make mistakes, and that Thurber was right when he said, “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean too far backwards.” But while he helped the prisoners and me to discover that we had a lot of feelings and observations and memories and dreams and (God knows) opinions we wanted to share, we all ended up just the tiniest bit resentful when we found the one fly in the ointment: that at some point we had to actually sit down and write. (Bird by Bird, pp.xii-xiii)

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. (Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, 1947)

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott never once writes about writers as a closed, exclusive society that only a select few can join. Anyone can be a writer. You just have to watch the world carefully and keep collecting details that might be useful, to enjoy good writing whether it is yours or someone else’s, and also you just have to write even when you would rather die a slow and painful death. Lamott writes about the neuroses of writers with unflinching and hilarious honesty: about the panic that sometimes sets in when you’re staring a long project in the face and realising just how difficult it’s going to be; about being paralysed by perfectionism; about sending your work out into the world and the crushing fear of rejection that comes with doing so.

Being a writer, or an artist, is nothing glamorous. In fact, it’s the opposite. Art isn’t about some fancy definition. Art is in facing the perils and joys of creating, both on the days when things fall into place easily and on the days when there are a thousand voices in your head telling you why every single word you put on the page is wrong, when the sea is full of waves and you’re starting to wonder whether you’ll ever get anywhere at all before you capsize.

Lamott doesn’t discuss genre, but I write genre and I’ve been rereading this book for years. As far as I’m concerned, it’s no different. It can easily be as much agony writing about magic as it can be writing realism*. Also, my best friend Amber, who got me onto this book, is a visual artist, and the other day she was talking about getting it for her boyfriend, who is a musician. What I’m trying to say is, it covers all sorts. Regardless of what you’re making, art is perseverance. Art is hanging on on the days when you’re not sure quite what you’re doing, let alone why you’re doing it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re creating an installation piece with three dimensional images and small plastic dinosaurs**, or whether you’re writing a novel about a girl trying to deal with having the most dangerous magic in the world***.

But if writing and creating is so hard, why do we bother at all? Well, it's also about having stuff that we have to say, stories we have to tell, things that will sit around and nag at us if we don't find a way to let them out, much like my cats when I accidentally leave a door closed.

And then there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those ravenous dogs contained. (Bird by Bird, p.26)

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.  (George Orwell, Why I Write, 1947)

Yeah. My cats can be very forceful.

Like Lamott, I write because it’s what I’m driven to do, because it’s what keeps me glued together. It can’t save the world, but it can render it luminous. The thing that makes a writer is the drive to write. Sometimes the drive to write is a glorious thing, a thing that makes us move and write at a million miles an hour and happy about the whole world, and sometimes it's a burden that life would be so much more straightforward without. You know, if we could go home after work when we're all tired and weary and just, you know, watch some bad TV for a bit, and not have words to put together and characters to argue with and plot logic to make sense of.

One of the many things I love about Bird by Bird is that it celebrates both parts of being a writer, or a person who creates, the part where it's easy, and the part where it seems almost impossible but we still try anyway, even when the writing is bad, even when we can only handle one small step at a time. Because we know that while writing may be a struggle sometimes, but it’s also the thing that makes all the struggling worthwhile.

*Actually, as far as I’m concerned, fantasy is realism. Just a different sort. Which is stuff that requires a post all of its own, because otherwise I will go on and on and derail this one. Remind me to write it at some point, ok?

**True story, actually. When I was flatting with Amber in Sandringham, we had a lot of plastic dinosaurs around for a few months while she worked on her final art school project. And the end result was spooky and quirky and wonderful.

*** My thing that I spent, like, almost all of last year doing.


Anna said...

One of my fave books and authors!!

I love the dinosaur tidbit at the end... :)))

If one's heart is in their work, any and all writing is art.

corrinejackson said...

You're right. Art isn't "glamorous." It's hard work and tearing your guts out to put them on the page for somebody to read. Loved the post, Leila!

Kate Hart said...

We are so meta.

I LOVE the quote "Art is perseverance." I might have to add you to my bulletin board of inspiration.

Debra Driza said...

OMG, I *love* the Thomas Mann quote--maybe I really am a writer, after all. :) Very thoughtful post, full of delicious quotable goodies--thanks for sharing!

John Rea-Hedrick said...


I LOVE Bird by Bird! Anne Lamott is brutally honest and eerily insightful. Every time I read it I find myself laughing and pausing to think . . . a lot.

Great choice!

Laura McMeeking said...

I love how you talk about art not being glamorous. It evoked a picture in my head of a painter toiling away in a studio over art that he wouldn't be recognized for for years. In the same way, I thought of writers who sat secluded in their rooms putting pen to paper to try to bring something to someone somwhere at some point in time, maybe never expecting to effect anyone at all. Very good post!

Jamie B said...

Very thoughtful post. Art is way to messy to be glamorous. Even written art which involves a lot of sweatpants, t-shirts, and ponytails - not so glamorous.

Leila Austin said...

Bird by Bird is the book I give anyone creative. I don't think there's any other book that celebrates the process of writing/artmaking in quite the same way, in all its beauty and all its mess.

And yeah. I always have to remember to be patient with writing, and accept that there will be days, months, years of working on it without knowing whether things will go anywhere. One of the reasons I like this book is that it makes me realise again and again that the whole process is worth it a thousand times over.