Thought: Reading is the best thing a writer can do for her continuing education
I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life for the first time or maybe it’s the second time. I say the second time because as I’m reading it on my iPhone I’m finding my digital fingerprints and faux highlighter marks that could only have been placed there by me. Still I have no memory of ever completing the book.
I recall when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. I’d somehow missed this classic in college even though I was an American Literature minor. I was long out of university serving as the Dean of Instruction at a local college in San Jose when I picked it up. A colleague at the time remarked that she envied me reading it for the first time. I never forgot that. And at times since, when I’ve begun reading a much anticipated title, I think back on her remark and how it still affects my reading today.
I continually look for titles that will quench my thirst for the virginal experience of reading a great work. Recently I was looking over the one hundred or so titles in my Kindle and sure enough, there it was.. Bird by Bird, purchased in 2010, and from what I can gather, I must have stopped reading before getting to Chapter Two.
In my reading this morning I was struck by Lamott’s advice to her writing students. They are, she explained, perpetually focused on becoming published and less on actually writing. They all want agents and book deals. In her opinion, they’ve place the proverbial cart ahead of the horse.
She tells them that they are looking for keys that aren’t right for their use; that they need to focus on the daily work of sitting their backsides in chairs and pounding out meaningless drivel, page after page, until they get to less meaningful drivel and continue writing until they write something that’s halfway good.
Thought: Three year-olds are brilliantly uncomplicated
In so doing, she recounts an experience with her then three year-old son, Sam:
“My son, Sam, at thee and a half, had these keys to a set of plastic handcuff, and one morning he intentionally locked himself out of the house. I was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper when I heard him stick his plastic keys into the doorknob and try to open the door. Then I heard his say, “Oh, shit.” My whole face widened, like the guy in Edvard munch’s Scream. After a moment I got up and opened the front door.
“Honey,” I said, “what’d you just say?”
“I said, ‘Oh, shit,’ ” he said.
“But, Honey that’s a naughty word. Both of us have to absolutely stop using it. Okay?”
He hung his head for a moment, nodded, and said, “Okay, Mom.” Then he leaned forward and said confidentially, “But I’ll tell you why I said ‘shit.’ “ I said Okay, and he said, “Because of the fucking keys!”
Thought: Writers evolve
Lamott’s broader point, and she makes in it the next line by saying, “Fantasy keys won’t get you in.” Too many writers focus on getting the right keys to get into the end game, getting and agent, signing for the book deal, and the fantasizing about the book tour… when it’s the ass-in-chair writing work that matters.
A non-writer would ask, “What do you mean it’s not about the end game? Everything is about the end game!” Ultimately, perhaps, but for the artist, the writer, the philosopher, the singer, and all creators, it’s the act of creation that matters. We don’t write, think, compose, or paint for money. Of course, we want to be compensated for our work, but more often than not, we write, think, compose, and paint or sculpt because we are compelled to do so by some primal need to express ourselves.
I tell people that I can’t not write.
That’s a double negative but what the hell. It’s as deep a truth as any I know. It’s because my DNA is wired to express my thoughts and reasoned responses via the rounded tips of my fingers that jitterbug across my sleek aluminum keyboard.
I didn’t gain this clarity overnight. I, too, started with a misplaced focus on the endgame. It was all I could think about…walking into my local Borders Books (my first mistake) and seeing my name on a book on the shelf. I joined writer’s groups, worked with a creativity coach, and started blogging irregularly about stupid stuff no one wanted to hear about. I assumed that all of these activities would lead to fame and fortune, book tours and signings, and ultimately a segment on Oprah. I, too, was preoccupied with a set of fantasy keys.
It wasn’t until I was willing to write a lot of crap on a daily basis that I was able to break through, occasionally, and write something worth publishing. I still write a lot of crap. Just ask my critics. There are many in the world that have no compunction about informing me of my foibles, typos (for which I’m infamous), and general lack of coherence.
Thought: Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should
To close this post on reading and writing I’ll mention something that bothers me about reading some writers. It seems that some writers, especially those who write literary fiction -the personages of Jonathan Franzen and the late David Foster Wallace, as well as some others come to mind- often use language devices (like sentences with several hundred words) because they can. As the subtitle above reminds us, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean that we should.
I have to wonder about authors who feel they must force such responsibility on their readers. What it is they feel is accomplished by such use of language devices? In my view it detracts from the story and frustrates the reader. If you want to write a 500 word sentence, more power to you.
But please just print it out and post it on your refrigerator.