Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Back to "Bird by Bird"

I don't know what the hell I'm doing. This is not a new idea, it's just that during this floppy, scrappy time of unemployment this truth has been brought to my consciousness front and center.

Last Tuesday I splurged using my finite financial resources and went to see Anne Lamott speak at the Jewish Community Center here in SF. Anne Lamott has written a number of books about religion and other topics. What she is most known for people like me is her classic book on writing "Bird by Bird."

I read "Bird by Bird" years ago and didn't like it. There was nothing new there, I thought, that I hadn't read in a bunch of other books on writing. I didn't like how insecure she was or how she seemed to flail around. True, she is a great writer, but I was uncomfortable with her brutal honesty. I didn't want to take advice or emulate a person who seemed so damn clueless. I wanted confidence and security. I set the book aside and checked it off as having read it. I would find what I was looking for elsewhere.

I don't know why I went to see her other than the fact that "Bird by Bird" is a classic now. Maybe I wanted to sit in a dark auditorium and hear someone who writes for a living speak. I hadn't read any of her other books. I was feeling, and still am feeling, lost and inefficient.

Seeing Anne was a revelation for me. She was funny, poignant, brilliant, and oh-so-brutally honest. She spoke to me and made me feel a sense of hope. She said she doesn't know what the hell she's doing either and that no matter how many books you've published, you'll still feel that way. Fortunately for me she focused on reiterating her ideas for writing and how those ideas can help you with the rest of your life.

She talked about the insecurities that she battles with on a daily, hourly basis. She talked about her feelings and how they get so overwhelming. She talked about how it is possible to be productive and to write the truth even when all this crap is whirling around in your head like a blinding snowstorm.

When I read "Bird by Bird" over ten years ago, I didn't like how she talked about all the distractions that get in the way, all the insecurities and all the feelings. At that time I wasn't writing regularly. I was arrogant. I knew I wouldn't have these problems at all. Now that I write on a somewhat regular basis and have a small body of work behind me everything Anne wrote about is true. It seems the deeper I get into this writing thing, the less I know. I feel like I'm crawling around in the mud all the time, searching for a way out, searching for a plan, guidance, a sign pointing me in the right direction. There is no sign and it's so painful. And lonely.

I don't know what the hell I'm doing. Anne said everything would be fine in her life if she just didn't have a mind that comes up with so much crap all the time. I have that problem too. I also think that all my love relationships would work out great if I didn't fall in love with the guy. Everything would be simpler and easier for both of us.

I tell myself to relax and enjoy and I can't. Instead, lurking in the back of my head is the first draft of my novel and I don't know what the hell to do with it. I have to finish it. There are at least three novels and two more short stories rolling around in my head right now, not to mention at least two or three short stories that have already been written and need to be finished. I'm not doing the stories any justice.

I'm still learning how to swim and the hardest thing for me is learning how to breathe. Yesterday, I took my second lesson and struggled with exhaling with my face in the water, then turning my head to the side and taking a breath. I sucked in water. I coughed. I got scared. My swimming instructor is wonderful and was able to keep me going. He told me how he's taught people how to swim who were terrified to be in the water. It's all about taking one step at a time and putting it together slowly. And practicing.

I realized while blowing out bubbles during one of my drills that I don't have to force the air out. I can be quieter and gentler about it. I don't have to rush. I don't have to push. I can just let myself be in the water. I figured out that even if I start to get scared as it kick my way across the pool, even if I get that sudden fear that I won't be able to breathe when I have my face in the water, I can still gently do my breathing exercises and I can still make to the other side of the pool. And I can continue to go back and forth across the pool like that.

Anne's suggestions:

1) Short Assignments - All you have to remember is you just need to do one piece of whatever it is. For writing, all that means is you need to focus on one paragraph, one small scene, one exchange, one inch of writing.

2) Shitty First Drafts - Anne says everyone writes terrible first drafts. Unreadable. Awful. Cringe inducing, painful first drafts. She says it's all right. All you have to do is get it down on paper (or the computer). Only after you've done that will you have something you can fix up.


This is where I'm stuck for I have lots of first drafts of stories/novels. I don't know how to fix them up. Well, okay. I think I've figured it out finally at least for this moment with this novel, but for the most part I don't know what the hell I'm doing.

And the older I get, the less I know, but when I say that I'm not just saying it to be cute or cliche. When I say the older I get, the less I know, I mean in a despairing, God-help-me-as-I-crawl-across-the-harsh-muddy-swamp-with-horrible-bugs-biting-at-me kind of not knowing. Usually I lie there among the bugs, the mud, the smell. I cry in frustration. I exhaust myself. The result is I end up doing nothing. I've got plenty of time to do anything and I spend much of it doing nothing. Despair. Pain. Desire.

One inch of writing. Keep doing my breathing exercises in the water as I'm swimming across the pool even when I'm convinced I'm going to drown. The first draft does and will suck; write it down anyway. Keep moving forward, slowly and gently.

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