Sometimes, especially as young writers, it can be overwhelming and scary to focus all of our attention on a project, to give our undivided and complete effort to something that may or may not succeed. After all, like anything creative, writing is always hit or miss: what works on a sunny Tuesday morning in June may not work on a rainy Sunday evening in April. What we write deeply affects and is deeply affected by our surroundings, of which we must always be painfully aware. But in this heightened state of awareness, we must also be prudent. We must hone the ability to understand when the anxieties creep in (as they often do in these heightened states) and take our writing step by baby step.
One of my favorite books of all time is Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I am a big fan of sound advice, and this book not only contains advice on writing, but advice on learning, loving, and living, three things of which I am most fond. Lamott notes immediately that the first pearl of wisdom she bestows upon her students is that “good writing is about telling the truth.” Even when we write fiction, we are still being truthful about the imaginary circumstances. Perhaps this is true not just of writing, but of art in general. There must be some degree of imagination involved, but if we aren’t being honest, our writing isn’t worth much. As Lamott says, “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.”
We are not sheep lice, and so we must understand.
But at the heart of Lamott’s writing is this: we must go bravely, yet slowly. If we must write, then we must write, but we must take our time, putting our whole heart into every piece of our work. This is true of any task we undertake, but because we are writers, it will ultimately prove especially relevant. Whether it is her incredibly dry sense of humor or her timeless advice, Lamott’s book is a must-read for any writer or person who simply exists. This is the inscription on the back of the book; I think of this often:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
I take each day bird by bird. It helps a lot.