Study Guide

Bird by Bird Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

By Anne Lamott

Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up. (Introduction.34)

The kind of hope writing requires seems to be something that is both active and passive. You have to keep working, but as you work, you're also waiting for something—other than the lunch bell. Maybe it's the moment when you've finally written the scene or story or novel you're trying to write.

Fantasy keys won't get you in. Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram—it's the eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar. What's real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you'll get better. (Introduction.31)

Being a writer may seem to be about generating J. K. Rowling-length lines at bookstores, but it's actually about the craft of writing itself and what it can do for you in your own life. Fame, it turns out, won't really add anything to your life (except headaches); it's really about who you are as a person and how you relate to your own life and those in it. If you're a mess with no clue about your own self, fame isn't going to solve that and make you magically happy.

I tell this story again because it usually makes a dent in the tremendous sense of being overwhelmed that my students experience. Sometimes it actually gives them hope, and hope, as Chesterton said, is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate. Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. (2.6)

Writing may not seem desperate (unless you're doing your finals essays), but it makes us face up to ourselves and what we need and want. Being cheerful while thinking about your deepest needs does seem like quite a challenge. Good thing tackling it bit by bit can give writers hope.

You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don't look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance. (16.4)

Dance is a good metaphor for a first draft because it requires some training, but when things are at their best, a dancer isn't focused on each individual step. Sometimes it's even better to make a misstep but keep the dance going than it is to wait too long figuring out the right next thing. Writing is like that, too.

There may be a flickering moment of insight in a one-liner, in a sound bite, but everyday meat-and-potato truth is beyond our ability to capture in a few words. Your whole piece is the truth, not just one shining epigrammatic moment in it. (15.2)

Maybe this is what Lamott is hoping for, as a writer: the possibility that the work as a whole may embody the truth about something. In fact, as she puts it, that's a requirement if the writing is going to be any good. It's also why you can't cheat the process; just learning the mechanics of, say, plot or sentence construction and applying what you've learned isn't going to give you a worthwhile piece of writing. There needs to be something more, some truth you've really worked on.

And then I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. (Introduction.55)

Yeah, writing's not gonna make your life easy or pleasant. But it will make it more meaningful. That's why writing gives Lamott great satisfaction, even under these circumstances.

But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It's like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. (Introduction.44)

Lamott seems to think that hope will be rewarded, not necessarily with fame or money, but with finding out that you really do love to write. Does anything you're currently writing make you feel this way? What do you think it would take for you to feel this way about writing? Or do you feel this way about something else? Not everyone has to be a writer; even Anne Lamott says so. Maybe this is how you feel about playing a sport, or playing an instrument, or making paintings, or going on hikes. All of those things are forms of art, each in their own way.

Don't underestimate this gift of finding a place in the writing world: if you really work at describing creatively on paper the truth as you understand it, as you have experienced it, with the people or material who are in you, who are asking that you help them get written, you will come to a secret feeling of honor. (29.30)

Lamott often talks about the characters or material of a book being somehow inside the writer, waiting to be given shape in a book. It's as though the characters and material develop their own power and their own personalities. It sounds like writers end up having a conversation with their material, as though it can talk back. There's that element of "truth" again.

And who knows? Maybe what you've written will help others, will be a small part of the solution. You don't even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don't go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. (29.31)

The lighthouse is a great image for Lamott to use here. If you've put your own experience on paper honestly enough, it's likely someone else will share enough of it to be helped or moved by your writing about it. But first you have to build the lighthouse by writing the book.

It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship. (29.37)

There's a Star Trek: Next Generation episode during which Jean-Luc Picard and three children get stuck in an elevator and have to climb to safety above about a trillion foot drop. The kids are scared until Patrick Stewart gets them singing. Lamott is saying a good writer can be just a little bit like a good Enterprise captain, able to give everyone the spirit to keep going.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...