Bird by Bird

I should have reminded you that my use of “shitty first draft” comes from Anne Lamott’s splendid writing book, Bird by Bird. 

Lamott (if I remember correctly) credits Ernest Hemingway (all first drafts are shit) and other writers. But she puts it so well. Every quarter that I taught Creative Nonfiction, I used to spend one class session reading aloud Lamott’s chapter, “Shitty First Drafts.” It didn’t take 50 minutes to read, but students would want to talk about process after hearing it. And we wrapped up the session by taking a few minutes to write — shittily, of course.

Click here to read “14 Writing Tips from Anne Lamott.”

Begin Again

Begin Again is the title of Grace Paley’s collected poems, and excellent advice — generally — for pursuing any creative career. (Click here to hear Garrison Keillor read her poem, “In the Bus,” which includes the famous line.)

I have a number of friends who tell me they would like to write a book, who have been telling me for years that they would like to write a book. What stops them — and this is of course merely my observation — is one of two things. Either they simply don’t make writing a priority, as though it is so easy to write a book that it will just happen at some time (like falling off a log, as my people say). Or they feel that writing a book is so freaking difficult that they can never, never do it. Writing books is for other people, like sailing around the world is for other people.

Books get written one page, one paragraph, one sentence at a time. A poem is written one word, one image, one line at a time.

Like the old joke about how to eat an elephant (one bite at a time), there’s really no other way to tackle it. Whether you think it would be a cinch, or if you think it’s so huge you can never possibly get it done, there is no other way.

My best, and first advice to my friends is to begin. Think of your “book” — in the abstract, best sense — as a big, blank canvas. This morning, put a mark on it. Tomorrow morning, get up and put another mark on it. You need a shitty first draft (the SFD, as my writing students used to call it) before you can revise. Will you keep any of these early marks? Maybe, maybe not. What you are really learning at this stage of the game, is how to begin. And how to begin again.

There’s a grace in that.

The Art of Slow Writing

As long-time readers of this blog know, I am a total story-nerd (and thank you, Shawn Coyne, for explaining this label to me). The book about writing that I have been dragging along in my travels over the last couple of months — reading it and rereading it — very, very slowly because I couldn’t bear to finish it — is Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing

Not just about slow writing (a topic I relish), it offers an insider’s view of the entire writing process. DeSalvo is a Virginia Woolf scholar, and has also studied the process of a diverse line-up of writers, including John Steinbeck, Sue Grafton, Colum McCann, Antonya Nelson, Nawal El Saadawi, Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Anne Tyler. (She seems to have sifted through every volume of The Paris Review Interviews, finding all the best stuff.) She borrows liberally (always giving credit) from creative writers and writers about the creative process, and from time and habit gurus of all stripes. And, of course, she liberally shares her own writing process.

I can’t hope to do justice to so much good stuff, nor to share so much underlining and highlighting and marginal notes. So here’s something that spoke to me about my current writing dilemma:

There comes a time in every project when we know we’ve turned a corner. Before that moment, everything was opaque, confusing, and difficult. We wondered whether what we’re writing is worth anything. We worry that we’ll never finish. We have a lot of good material, but we don’t know what to do with it. We might have an inkling of how the piece or book will come together, but we’re not sure it’s right, and we’re reluctant to try to implement the plans we’ve germinated.

We’re working every day, but the work seems to be going nowhere. We circle around and around our subject, writing good material, and then writing material that seems not to fit — material we suspect we’ll never use but that we need to write anyway….

At times we think we should abandon the project, abandon writing. the book seems to be taking over our life….

Then, one day — and who knows when or why or how — we know the book will happen….

Most writers reach this moment. Beginning writers who haven’t yet might find it hard to trust that if they just keepbookheart working, that time will come. This is miracle time, magic time, the move from opacity to clarity. And we can’t force this moment — the arrival of clarity — to happen; this moment takes its own sweet time. We have to show up at the desk day after day, week after week, year after year for that splendid moment to arrive. (148-149)

Just keep showing up. Keep working. Keep writing! (And DO read this wonderful book.)


birdfeederIt kind of cracks me up (when I’m in a smiling mood) that — even without the teaching career — even without the three little girls who were underfoot for so many years and now are nearly grown — I STILL feel overwhelmed and as though I don’t have enough time to write.

Because Louise DeSalvo told me to, I have been reading The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others Do in 12 Months. In this book, which is largely for manager-types and salespeople, Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington explain that time is finite:

“It’s important to realize the simple truth that you can’t do it all; otherwise you will continue to labor under the false belief that you will eventually catch up, and finally get to the important stuff. You will continue to use all of your time on the urgent day-to-day activity and postpone the strategic that is required to create breakthrough and, ultimately, the life you desire.” (138)

You wouldn’t think that this would be such a big idea. I’ve encountered it before, and in contexts more relevant to my writing life. But it caught me at a vulnerable moment. And then these sentences, a few paragraphs down the page:

“Reaching a breakthrough isn’t about being incremental. Breakthrough requires a profound change in the way that you work…”

You, too, no doubt have heard before much of what they say. But their idea of ditching annual goals for 12-week goals strikes me as brilliant. You can still have annual goals, but you have to go through the process of breaking them down into doable 12-week chunks. Instead of writing down for 2015, “Lose 20 pounds, Declutter house; Finish two new books” — which sounds an awful lot like a wish list, rather than goals — thinking in 12-week chunks of time has made me get more concrete in all of my thinking.

If I want to lose 20 pounds this year (ultimate goal: to be radically healthy into my 90s!), how much will I have to lose over the next 12 weeks? And what actions will I have to take this week in order to be on track with my 12-week goals?

Pictures are of my Mother’s Day gifts!

To finish my novel rewrite before I take my Florida vacation (which was about 7 weeks out when I started reading The 12 Week Year), what actions will I need to take? This week? Today?

To send the requested 8-10 poems to the journal that requested them by the end of May, what actions do I absolutely have to take now?

I started by printing up a 12 week calendar that fits on a single, 8X10 page — a planning practice from my teaching days. I had SO much to write into it, that I then made the calendar days bigger and put it on two pages of six weeks each. I divided up the work, leaving myself leeway (I know myself too well to think I won’t need leeway), and planning for Sundays off from writing. (What kind of backyard sanctuary would I like to create by fall? What actions will I have to take in order to get there?)

Imagine Something

dogwoodOn Mother’s Day, I spent the entire day not writing. I keep coming across the advice to rest (and resisting it!). More than one of my friends has told me that I should take time off occasionally from the book. Louise DeSalvo, in The Art of Slow Writingdevotes entire chapters to resting. And I came across this quote (on Advice to Writers) from Jorge Luis Borges: “A writer’s work is the product of laziness, you see. A writer’s work essentially consists of taking his mind off things, of thinking about something else, of daydreaming, of not being in any hurry to go to sleep but to imagine something.”

So this past Sunday, Mother’s Day, I decided to not write–not even my 15 minutes, which I rely on when I don’t have time to write. It wasn’t that I didn’t have time. The issue was that I was taking time off.

I went early to church and helped with the Mother’s Day breakfast. After church, I went to Wight’s nursery with my husband and two of my daughters (the third had left for work at 11). We bought a Japanese Maple for Mother’s Day, and then a whole bunch of other plants the girls picked out. At home, we changed into our grubby clothes and worked in the yard. I stayed out there all afternoon! A friend came for dinner and we sat in the back yard and talked until dark. The girls (all three + one boyfriend) built a bonfire. Guitars were produced.

“Wallow in this time, Bethany,” a friend texted me when I told her all three girls were home this weekend. “It won’t last.”

Generally, I think that one can write while raising children, even while having a garden, that–in fact–writing enhances those other activities. But once in a while, I think I’ll make it a habit to take a day off from writing–completely, deliberately–and see what happens. I’ll take my mind off the book; I’ll be lazy; and I’ll see what that something else might be that I imagine.

And the winner is…

27fd5-bigpoetrygiveaway2015Rita Ott Ramstead won the top prize (ahem) my two books of poetry: The Coyotes and My Mom, and Sparrow

BoneSpark Blog won the second prize, which includes SEVERAL books of poetry, and Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art

Thank you all for taking part. If you are in Writing Lab with me, or if you are one of my friends who meet regularly to write (or drink coffee, for that matter), I have a consolation prize for you.