Once upon a time I had a blog about learning how to write. This is because, as you might guess, I wanted very badly to be a writer. I wanted to write novels that stole hours from people's days and made them feel as if they were in the story.
So when I was cleaning up some old articles from The Iceberg Project's site, I was delighted to find lessons from writing books and analyses that I had written on writing that I can't just let disappear. If anything, they're nostalgic of how much I've grown.
“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”
The first thing I learned from Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird was the power of extraction.
Basically, each writer already has the words inside of them, and it’s only a matter of extracting them from your mind, your soul, your experiences and getting them on paper; almost like writers are only scribes for the universe.
The second thing I learned was that when you’re having trouble writing, narrow your focus and do something that she calls a ‘Short Writing Assignment’ or‘SWA’ for short. Take something as tiny as what it feels like when a child sees the beach for the first time or what it feels like to eat a really juicy orange and write a couple of paragraphs on it. You’ll be so narrowly focused that the writing will be encouraged to flow. If you’re stuck in a part of your story where two main characters are arguing, just take what it feels like to argue with someone you really care about and write about that for two paragraphs or two pages. It will help you unblock.
Also, what’s really interesting about this exercise is that once you get into your paragraphs, you’ll realize how much detail will flow out of you and how your seemingly small topic is actually quite huge. So, you keep narrowing down until you realize that you needed a certain detail, a certain character, or a certain event in all that writing. And you realize you needed that block to get that one detail that’s going to turn the story in a certain direction or create change in a character, and it’s so beautiful that you’ve been able to discover it.
The third thing I learned was that shitty first drafts are okay and totally necessary to the process of writing. Seriously, it’s okay if your story isn’t brilliant the first time that it comes into the world. There is not one writer in the whole wide world that sits down to write, flows for six hours, and then turns that portion of the story into the publisher fully pleased. Spill your creativity onto the page, let the characters do what they want at first, and be open to new possibilities in the story.
The fourth thing I learned was being comfortable with your characters growing and transforming away from your original intentions. In all writing classes, you’ll endlessly hear about knowing every detail of your characters’ lives, and it’s true, you should know them as well as you know yourself. But, also be open to them changing and don’t use your artistic power to keep them in a box of what you want them to be like. Your story and your character will evolve simultaneously.
The fifth thing I learned was this: “Find out what each character cares about most in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake.” Always know this. This is where drama stems from. It will create the entire human aspect of your story that your readers can relate to. Write it on a post-it at your desk and when you wonder what Lara will do next in the story, you’ll remember that she cares the most about her daughter Jolie. Jolie is at stake now, so what will Lara do that speaks true to her love for her daughter?
And lastly, and probably the most important thing I learned from this book, was that getting published as a writer is not going to make you feel masterful, artistic, and full.In fact, it will probably scare the shit out of you because then you have to do it all over again, and it’s a cycle of continually having to prove yourself to the world. Just keep writing, keep producing, continue giving your art to the world. Release fear, judgment & lack and remember to always let your ~ing into the process.
Just get your story on paper. The rest will come if you do the work.
What do you think? Have you read the book, or do you have any other writing advice that always works for you?
Want the book? Find it here: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life