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With this basic instruction always in mind, Anne Lamott returns to offer us a new gift: a step-by-step guide on how to write and on how to manage the writer's life. From "Getting Started,' with "Short Assignments," through "Shitty First Drafts," "Character," "Plot," "Dialogue." all the way from "False Starts" to "How Do You Know When You're Done?" Lamott encourages, instructs, and inspires. She discusses "Writers Block," "Writing Groups," and "Publication." Bracingly honest, she is also one of the funniest people alive.
If you have ever wondered what it takes to be a writer, what it means to be a writer, what the contents of your school lunches said about what your parents were really like, this book is for you. From faith, love, and grace to pain, jealousy, and fear, Lamott insists that you keep your eyes open, and then shows you how to survive. And always, from the life of the artist she turns to the art of life.
237 pages, Paperback
First published May 5, 1994
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed. - Ernest HemingwayI have not always felt much like writing. My writer’s block, if that is what it was, and not merely the tardy development of some creative muscles, occupied a large portion of my youth. Writing papers for school was not merely a chore but a horror. I am not sure when chips were first broken from that large mass but I do recall actually having some fun as a high school sophomore, in otherwise weak report on Midsummer Night’s Dream, describing the play as “Shakespearean Slapstick.“ Writing did get easier, but was never less than challenging. I have had occasion to write a bit of this and that in my working life, but my employers have all been consistent in finding no use at all for what writing ability I may possess. That impulse found its way into letters, and, for disparate periods, journaling. I managed to crank out a newsletter for the baseball and softball teams I managed, but those days are well back in the rearview. For the last fifteen years or so, I have been cranking out reviews here on Goodreads, and seem to have found a rhythm. This is by no means automatic. Every one of these things, well, with one or two exceptions, takes real effort. But it is possible. It is not horrifying. I am comfortable in knowing that when I read a book I can definitely produce a review, not always a good review, but at least one that is not completely embarrassing. At the very least, it is not cadged from the kid sitting in front of me, or helped along by ChatGPT. I have developed my own system, an approach to how to go about it. I could probably keep at this until my ashes are strewn, but there is a piece of me that would like to take on something larger, something less reactive. And so the horror returns. It is quite clear that just because a person can write book reviews, that does not mean a person can necessarily write an actual book. My inner child begins to whine, “but I wanna, waaaaah.”
One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do—you can either type or kill yourself.” - Anne Lamott
E.L. Doctorow once said that “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.”Although this does ignore the obvious, that in making that trip one already is aware of the destination, and the route, still, it gives me hope. Maybe an inability to see the entire picture from the beginning does not condemn my efforts, or yours, to failure. One concern I have is that whatever I write, as seems to be the case for every idea I have ever had, has already been done, probably multiple times, and probably better. Lamott has a quote for this:
Mark Twain said that Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before. Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions.If you are considering writing more generically, as opposed to having a specific project in mind, Lamott offers a wealth of assignments designed to get the wheels turning. And for those who dabble in analyzing books, there is plenty of intel on structure, and the dynamics of story-telling, all of which are relevant to reviewers of books.
The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out. Year after year my students are bursting with stories to tell, and they start writing projects with excitement and maybe even joy — finally their voices will be heard, and they are going to get to devote themselves to this one thing they've longed to do since childhood. But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat. Some lose faith. Their sense of self and story shatters and crumbles to the ground. Historically they show up for the first day of the workshop looking like bright goofy ducklings who will follow me anywhere, but by the time the second class rolls around, they look at me as if the engagement is definitely off.
"I don't even know where to start," one will wail.
Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O'Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is Okay if it is well done. Don't worry about doing it well yet, thought. Just start getting it down.
There’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this. ... To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and pass this on.
There are a lot of us, some published, some not, who think the literary life is the loveliest one possible, this life of reading and writing and corresponding. We think this life is nearly ideal. It is spiritually invigorating ... It is intellectually quickening. One can find in writing a perfect focus for life. It offers challenge and delight and agony and commitment. We see our work as a vocation, with the potential to be as rich and enlivening as the priesthood. As a writer, one will have over the years many experiences that stimulate and nourish the spirit. These will be quiet and deep inside, however, unaccompanied by thunder or tremulous angels.