Bird by Bird Summary
Okay, this is basically a how-to guide with some stories in it, not a novel or even a conventional memoir telling an overarching story about someone's life. Bird by Bird really doesn't have a plot. The good news is that the how-to guide style makes the book's structure pretty easy to follow. Lamott breaks it all up into sections, which we've turned into handy headings for you below.
Part One: Writing
This is where we get most of the standard how-to guide stuff on writing a novel or story, with lots of helpful tips and examples. Plus, we get plenty of sympathy from Lamott, who knows just how hard sitting down to write can be.
Part Two: The Writing Frame of Mind
Not only can Anne Lamott tell us how to write a story, she can even tell us how to think like writers. That's what this section does.
Part Three: Help Along the Way
Ever try and assemble one of those chairs or tables that comes in a box from IKEA? Sometimes you just need someone to hold two pieces together or help you find all the tiny nails that fell out when you opened the box. Writing can be like that, too, and here Lamott tells us how to get help when we need it.
Part Four: Publication—and Other Reasons to Write
This section talks about getting published, and it also gives some great ideas on reasons to write other than money and fame—just in case your English essay somehow fails to make the New York Times bestseller list.
Part Five: The Last Class
Here's Lamott's final pep talk to her class, plus any advice she missed or wants to cover again. It's pretty inspiring. And kind of snarky.
And that's it. Check out our detailed summary for...a more detailed summary.
- This book doesn't have anything like a plot. It's a how-to guide, and it's the how-to stuff that gives the book its structure. We've focused here on giving you a quick guide to what Lamott covers in each chapter, with most of the emphasis on the writing takeaways.
- Anne Lamott's family loved to read quietly after dinner—unless one of her father's friends was passing out at the dinner table.
- Huh? Did we hear that correctly? Yep. Lamott's dad's friends sometimes did this because they were writers of a kindly but slightly crazy variety.
- Lamott liked them but tended to get a little nervous when they passed out. Go figure.
- Lamott's father was also a writer. He always got up at 5:30 a.m. and wrote for a few hours before making the family breakfast, then wrote some more until lunch. Sounds like father-of-the-year material to us.
- Surprisingly, as a kid, Lamott kind of wanted her dad to have a boring office job.
- We learn that Lamott's father died young. Super sad. But it sounds like he enjoyed his life as a writer—and short-order cook.
- Lamott tells us some more about growing up with a writer. Along the way, she points out some advantages of being a writer. These include: 1) You have an excuse to go out and explore. 2) You also have a good reason to look closely at life.
- Lamott says writing taught her father to pay attention. Then, her father taught other people to pay attention and to become writers themselves. Most of these other people were prisoners. Orange Is the New Black, anyone? Actually, this was way before Orange Is the New Black. Lamott's dad taught in a creative writing program at San Quentin prison.
- Lamott also learned a lot about writing from her dad, mostly by watching. She learned the following lessons: 1) Write a little bit every day. 2) Read all the books and plays you can. Er, the good ones, anyway. 3) Read poetry. 4) Don't be afraid to make mistakes.
- There's really just one drawback. Eventually you have to do the darn writing yourself. Young Anne and the prisoners see that as a bit of a pain.
- Lamott thinks it's easier to write as a child, but it's always pretty darn hard. Writers, like students, complain about this a lot.
- Lamott also tells us a bit about herself as a child, when she was learning to write from her dad. She was nervous—like super nervous. And the mean girls in the neighborhood used to tease her about looking weird.
- Lamott taught herself to be funny in self-defense, and then she started to write.
- In fact, Anne wrote an epically long poem about John Glenn—in second grade. And the teacher read it to the class. It even won an award.
- The other second graders were impressed.
- Lamott enjoyed this experience.
- Lamott eventually realized she wanted to be a writer like her dad. So much for a boring office job.
- Anne was a bit worried about making enough money, though. A legit concern—Shmoop has some info on money and writers right on over here.
- Many of Lamott's dad's writer friends seemed to have some trouble paying the bills—not to mention staying away from their substances of choice.
- Anne found this a little weird because her other friends had parents who were things like lawyers and doctors. They didn't have as much trouble paying the bills nor did they spend their afternoons smoking pot.
- Just to be clear, Lamott seems to like her dad a lot, and he seems to make money and not be an alcoholic. But Lamott worries about his pals.
- Lamott really wants to feel like she belongs, but she lives in a boring middle-class neighborhood.
- Even in middle school, Lamott has trouble fitting in because she doesn't look like everybody else. But she does manage to be funny, and that helps her fit in more.
- It turns out that being a writer helps Anne more with fitting in than you might think. She writes something and shows it to a teacher, and then it gets put into a real textbook. Her parents and teachers are seriously impressed.
- Even a few of the popular kids are impressed.
- Lamott gets invited to more parties.
- Lamott has a popular friend over for a sleepover one time, and Lamott's dad has just received a copy of his new novel. The popular friend thinks it's the coolest thing ever to have a writer for a dad.
- Lamott starts reading a bit of the novel aloud to her friend later. Turns out the part she chooses is about sex. It's pretty embarrassing to Lamott.
- Well, you can't win 'em all.
- Then, something weird happens: Lamott's dad writes a magazine article that describes their community as "a lousy place to raise kids." (This is really, actually the title.) In it, he complains that the community is full of materialistic people who are going slightly crazy in their environment of shallowness.
- Lamott thinks this essay is going to be hopelessly embarrassing, too. She plays tennis with a lot of these people. She worries they'll be upset.
- Turns out, much of the community loves the article. Her brother's teachers hand it out as required reading, and his class is impressed. Some of the people at the tennis club are a little miffed, but people also stop her father on the street and gush their thanks. That probably doesn't happen to the kids with lawyer parents.
- By high school, Anne is writing a lot. This ends up improving her street cred with the other high schoolers. Actually, it's not the writing itself that helps; it's the fact that she's learning to tell stories well. When her friends want someone to tell the story of some funny or outrageous thing that happened, they turn to her. If they'd had Facebook back then, Anne's posts would be getting all the likes.
- Anne says her father was like this, too, able to take small events and bring out what was funny or significant or important about them.
- Lamott thinks about how her father probably had a similar childhood to hers. He probably enjoyed being alone or having serious conversations with grownups. She says this kind of person often becomes either a writer or a career criminal. Did we mention that Lamott can be snarky?
- Anne Lamott also likes to read. A lot.
- Anyhow, Lamott feels different from her peers as a child and young adult, and she thinks being different and being a writer often go together. Around her junior year of high school, she decides that she can actually do it: she can be a writer.
- Then, Anne writes some terrible, terrible stories.
- We're not being mean. That's how Anne herself describes it (Introduction.22). Nice to know that even famous writers don't always get it right on the first try.
- Scene switch.
- Now, we're in Lamott's college days, and college is just great for her. The books she reads in her classes make her feel like she can actually be part of a community, and so do her new friends, who sound strange in a cool way. Lamott desperately wants to be intellectual, political, and artistic. Her reading and her new friends seem to be helping with that—even if she has to give up on her socialist meetings after five weeks because she gets bored on the long bus ride.
- College goes on pretty well for a while. Lamott discovers all sorts of cool books, she starts writing for the school newspaper, and she gets good grades in English, if not in everything.
- But Lamott really wants to be known as a writer more widely, not just in her college newspaper. So, when she's 19, she drops out of college.
- Shmoop career aside: dropping out of college seems to have worked for Lamott, eventually. She is pretty famous these days, and she seems happy in a neurotic writer kind of way. But she complains a lot about money in the book, so we can't recommend the dropout course if your goal is to become a billionaire.
- Lamott moves back to San Francisco, where she hopes to become a famous writer. Lamott says she became a famous Kelly girl instead. What's that? It sounds vaguely exciting and scandalous, but it turns out it's an old-fashioned name for doing office work through a temp agency.
- Eventually, Lamott gets a job as a clerk-typist with a big firm that does engineering and construction. Yawn. She's in the nuclear quality-assurance department, which sounds slightly more interesting. But Lamott says it was extremely boring. She also claims to have thrown out a lot of the paperwork, which gave her time to write short stories.
- Memoir writers sometimes exaggerate. We here at Shmoop kind of hope this is one of those times. Especially since our offices are near San Francisco.
- Lamott's dad says to write every day.
- Lamott writes at work and every night after work. She sits in coffeehouses and writes and drinks a lot of wine because she thinks that's what writers do. She figures it works for her father and his friends. (We do not recommend this strategy, btw.)
- Lamott also says her dad's writer friends had started to commit suicide by this point in her life. This is genuinely tragic. Lamott doesn't spend much time on it here, but it must have been a very hard moment in her father's life, and obviously it was disturbing for Lamott as well. It's not easy being a writer, folks.
- Lamott moves to the town of Bolinas, where her father and younger brother are living. Her mother isn't living with them because her parents split up the year before.
- Lamott cleans and teaches tennis to make money and keeps writing. What is she writing? She does some other stuff, but mostly she writes what she considers to be her great work at the time. It's a short story named "Arnold."
- "Arnold" is about a bald psychiatrist with a beard who runs into "a slightly depressed young female writer and her slightly depressed younger brother" (Introduction.29). Sound like anyone we know?
- Arnold gives the writer and her brother psychological advice. Then, he waddles around quacking like a duck to make them laugh.
- If you're thinking this isn't going to sell like The Hunger Games, Lamott agrees. She says, "It was a terrible story" (Introduction.30).
- Lamott is lucky in that her father already has a literary agent who is willing to read Anne's stories. The agent is named Elizabeth McKee. Lamott sends McKee new versions of "Arnold" every few months.
- McKee is very nice about this, writing back kind notes.
- Lamott talks about writing for several years and longing to be published. Her father believes in her writing, which is a big reason she doesn't give up.
- Then, something really bad happens. When Lamott is 23, her father gets brain cancer. Anne and her brothers are brokenhearted. But her dad tells her she should write about it: he plans to write his version of events, and he wants her to write her own. Lamott agrees to this idea, even though she's devastated.
- Lamott's dad turns out to be too ill to write, but Anne writes five chapters, and her dad loves them. He tells her to send them to Elizabeth McKee, the agent who's been reading "Arnold" all this time.
- Lamott says she thinks McKee must have been thrilled to receive anything besides "Arnold."
- Elizabeth McKee does her agent thing, and Viking agrees to publish Anne's book. Sadly, her father dies about a year before the book is published, but at least Anne had the chance to write about him, and he got to read early versions. That's gotta be worth a lot, and it seems like it is to Lamott.
- Lamott also winds up getting published, although that seems less important to her than writing for her dad.
- Nevertheless, Lamott has been hoping to get published for a long time, so it's nice, even though not losing her dad would have been nicer.
- And at least publishing should solve most of Lamott's other problems, right?
- Turns out publishing doesn't entirely live up to Anne's expectations. It's actually pretty tense waiting for the book to be published, and a few of the early reviewers aren't very nice.
- When the book finally does get published, it gets some wonderful reviews. It also gets some awful ones. Lamott does some writer events like interviews and book signings.
- But basically, publishing doesn't seem as life-changing as Lamott expected it would be. Nobody says her novel is the best thing since Moby-Dick, and she isn't rich enough to retire on the spot. Wasn't publishing supposed to make that sort of thing happen?
- Apparently not—and publishing since has been a similar experience. Even when her fifth book comes out, Lamott doesn't get ridiculously rich, and the reviews don't say she's written the greatest American novel ever.
- Kind of disappointing, huh?
- But even if publishing hasn't lived up to her expectations, Lamott seems really happy to be a writer. She says she warns people that publication isn't everything you'd hope, but writing is. Even if you have to make yourself do it, the actual writing is the best part.
- Lamott describes how great writing has been for her. It feels like being in love with someone after years and years of knowing that person; it's like magic.
- Now, Lamott teaches writing. She wasn't really trying to, but someone offered her a job doing it about a decade before she wrote Bird by Bird, and she just kept doing it.
- Lamott talks a bit about why she writes, complete with funny stories about why famous writers wrote, not to mention an inspiring aside about Chariots of Fire. Cue that early '80s epic synth theme, folks.
- Basically, Lamott says people write because they want to or because they're good at it. She thinks she got these descriptions from poet John Ashbery (who wanted to) and writer Flannery O'Connor (who was good at it). Another fun thing about Lamott—if she's not absolutely sure she's right, she tells you a good line anyway and admits she's not certain who said it.
- Anyway, Lamott writes because she wants to and she's good at it, and she welcomes students who are good at it—but also students who just want to do it, whatever their level of talent. As long as somebody wants to give writing a try, Lamott is happy to have that person in her class.
- Want to know what a famous writer says in this sort of a class? We're in luck because Lamott is about to tell us just that.
- Lamott tells students they'll want to be instantly good, and lots of people aren't. On the bright side, there's a reasonable chance they might get to be good writers someday if they just keep practicing. Who knew that being a New York Times bestselling author was so much like learning to play the tuba?
- Lamott tells her students a lot of other things about life as a writer, including the idea that someday they might like the act of writing itself and not just the idea that they might produce a finished work.
- Lamott also warns students that it's hard to get published, and it may not fill your bank account or give you joy and peace even if you do. She says it's more likely to bring ruin, financial problems, and other things you don't want.
- Then, Lamott says she thinks people should write, anyway.
- Basically, writing and publication aren't going to make your life everything you ever wanted it to be. Lamott has a lot of writer friends, and they don't look happy and contented.
- Lamott's students don't want to hear this, apparently. (No kidding.) She says they also don't want to hear that it took her four published books to stop being a starving artist, nor do they want to hear other unpleasant things about life as a writer.
- But Lamott spills it, anyway. On the good side, she also says writing makes her writer friends feel more alive and satisfied when they are writing, and she wants her students to feel that, too.
- Here's some more good news: the rest of this book is basically what Lamott tells her students over all the weeks of her class. She's going to tell us almost everything she knows about writing. Not a bad deal. When was the last time a famous author invited you to hang out and hear everything she knows about writing?
Part 1, Chapter 1
Part One: Writing
- Lamott thinks good writing is about telling the truth. Not just the "okay, I may possibly have eaten my brother's last Halloween Snickers bar, but I'm sure he didn't want it, anyway" kind of truth. Truth like who are we as human beings is more what Lamott has in mind.
- It turns out that when you try and tell this kind of truth for a couple days straight while sitting at your desk and staring at your laptop, it's not quite as much fun as you might expect. Lamott's students usually figure this out by the second class and give her skeptical looks.
- These writing students have a problem that may sound familiar to your average high school student faced with a paper to write: they don't know where to start.
- Where should somebody start? Not that we here at Shmoop know any procrastinating writers who might need to know that. We're purely interested in an abstract sort of support-the-arts kind of way.
- Lamott thinks you might as well start with your childhood. Flannery O'Connor thought that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of their lives. This may not be the moment to mention that Flannery O'Connor died when she was 39…but hey, she's still famous, so this advice worked for her.
- Anyhow, Lamott also tells her readers to start with childhood. This can be a little overwhelming since a lot happens in your average childhood. But professional writers get overwhelmed with too much material, too; when Lamott was writing restaurant reviews, for example, her head was so full of different meals and restaurants that she froze whenever someone asked for a recommendation. It got better if someone could narrow it down to a particular kind of food, like Indian cuisine.
- To help writers narrow it down and get something actually started, Lamott suggests jotting down everything you remember from your first few years of school. It doesn't even matter if what someone writes at this stage is good because no one will see this. She gives lots of helpful questions writers can make use of to get rolling.
- If you don't get anything good by writing about school, Lamott says you can go on to writing about holidays or big events you remember from childhood. She gives a similarly useful list of questions and suggestions for this.
- What if your childhood was less than ideal, and your relatives don't want you to talk about it? Lamott says to write it down, anyway, and figure out what to do about that problem later.
- Lamott's students seem to want more detail than this. She says they ask her how you actually write all that stuff. She says to sit down.
- This world-famous writer stuff doesn't sound too hard so far.
- Lamott adds that we might want to sit down at about the same time every day. That's a little harder, but Lamott thinks it will pay off.
- Lamott describes the agonizing process of sitting there trying to start writing, and this really does sound hard.
- Eventually, however, the sitting there will pay off, and the writer will actually start writing sentences. That's a relief.
- Lamott says just willing this to happen won't do it; writers have to show persistence and faith, and they have to do hard work. Then, she says something like "just do it." Nike would be proud.
- Lamott wishes she had a silver bullet that made writing easy, but she doesn't. It's the same for almost everyone she knows. But the good news is that eventually, for most people, something will start coming.
- Lamott admits that once she does get something written, she usually rereads it and spends the rest of the day worrying that the world will figure out how bad her first drafts are. She also spends quite a while talking about all the awful feelings that can result after this.
- But hey, it's actually kind of comforting. If professional writers feel bummed like this and still manage to sell books and get famous, maybe getting through your next paper deadline won't be that awful. And maybe your indie singer-songwriter lyrics will get noticed, too.
- Lamott talks about how cool it is when you finally hit inspiration and words just come pouring out.
- Lamott's students apparently give her funny looks when she says this kind of thing. Then, they ask her how to find an agent.
- Lamott explains that when you are ready, you can go through books that list agents and start asking them to look at your work. If you're really good and really persistent, eventually an agent will agree to represent your work.
- But Lamott says in the meantime, it's best to concentrate on actually becoming a better writer. If you're a better writer, you'll be a better reader, and that's the real payoff for learning to write.
- Lamott's students don't believe any of this, apparently. They really want to find agents and get published, and sometimes at about this point in the class they also want a refund.
- The students also want to know why sometimes they feel crazy when they're writing, such as when they're producing bad sentences even if people have told them they're good writers and when that experience makes them feel paranoid and mentally ill.
- Lamott says you can get paralyzed by feelings like these or you can use them as great writing material. She recommends using them as material, and she quotes a poem by someone else that does this well.
- Apparently, Lamott's students are rarely impressed by the poem. Usually, they stare at her for a while, until finally one of them raises a hand and asks if you really need an agent or if you can just send your manuscript to a publisher directly.
- Lamott pauses and says you really need an agent.
- The key problem for many of Lamott's students at this point in the class is that they really want to be published, maybe even more than they want to write.
- Lamott says publishing won't actually give you what you want. Writing can do a lot of things for you: help you soften, pay attention, wake up to life. But publishing won't do any of those things.
- Lamott tells a funny story about her very young son trying to open a door, and she says that publication won't open the doors you need opened. Really learning to write will open doors, though, in spite of all the moments when you'll feel bored or defeated.
- Lamott says that if what you long for is to write, there are good reasons to do it and ways to get it done.
- The students ask what the good reasons are.
- Lamott says that for some people, books are one of the most important things in life. She thinks it's a miracle that ink on paper can introduce you to worlds, help you understand who you are, introduce you to community, and more.
- Lamott asks students if they too are grateful for books, and most of them are. They love good writing and want to become good writers. Apparently, this usually convinces them to stay in the class for a while longer. Even if publishers aren't yet fighting squirt-gun duels over their manuscripts.
- Lamott says she'll next get on to the two most useful things she can say about writing.
Part 1, Chapter 2
- So, what are the two most useful things Anne Lamott has to say about writing? Number 1 is short assignments.
- Most of us are trying to write long stuff, Lamott says, and that's like trying to scale a glacier.
- Lamott says that when she's trying to write something long and it's making her panic and feel like it's the end of her writing career, she stops. She breathes. She lets her mind wander. After she thinks about a ton of things that won't help her writing project, like whether she should get orthodontia or find a new boyfriend, she finally notices the 1-inch picture frame that she has left on her desk to remind her of short assignments.
- What's so great about a 1-inch picture frame? It reminds Lamott she only has to tackle one short writing assignment at a time.
- For now, Lamott just has to write one paragraph that pins the story down to her hometown in the late '50s. Or maybe she'll describe the main character the first time she appears, as she walks onto her porch.
- Why are short assignments so helpful? Lamott gives us an E. L. Doctorow quote that explains. Doctorow said that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way" (2.4).
- Lamott thinks this is pretty darn good advice about writing, and life, for that matter. You don't need to write everything at once, just a bit at a time.
- Then, Lamott tells another story about writing short assignments. This is the story she named the book after, so we're betting it's pretty important.
- Thirty years earlier, Lamott's then 10-year-old brother was trying to write a report on birds. He'd had three months to write it. It was due the next day. Naturally, her bro was panicking at the family cabin when their father put his arm around him and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird" (2.5).
- Lamott says she tells this story again here, even though she's told it before, because it helps her students feel less overwhelmed. And writing students can feel really overwhelmed.
- Then, Lamott says that a writer named Chesterton said that hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.
- According to Lamott, writing can be pretty desperate, and not just if you've procrastinated on your elementary school report about birds.
- Writing is about some of our deepest needs. We want to be visible to others, to be heard by them, to make sense of life, and other stuff like that. Writing can help us with all that, so it's easy to take ourselves too seriously when we're doing it.
- Lamott ends the chapter by encouraging writers to focus on finishing one short assignment.
Part 1, Chapter 3
S***ty First Drafts
- Yep, it's Anne Lamott dropping the S-bomb in the title there, not us. She says that there's something that may be even better news than the idea of short assignments: the idea of s***ty first drafts.
- All good writers write them, and that's how they eventually get to good second drafts and terrific third drafts.
- Lots of people think successful writers feel great each time they sit down to write. They effortlessly whip out something amazing, like Lin-Manuel Miranda doing a little improv.
- Lamott says she knows a lot of great writers, and this is simply not true. She says not one of them writes amazing first drafts. Okay, maybe one does, but none of the other writers like her very much.
- But except for that one writer, most authors don't know what they're doing until they've already done it. Writing a draft is super painful for most of them. The only way Lamott herself can get anything done is to write terrible first drafts.
- Eventually, as you're writing a terrible draft, Lamott says, you may find something amazing that you couldn't have gotten to any other way, but you'll probably have to write five and a half lousy pages to get to one half page that is worth salvaging.
- Lamott gives an example from her days of writing food reviews for California magazine before it went broke. (She's confident it didn't go under because of her reviews, by the way. Although some readers did object when she compared the food at some of the restaurants to the brains of ex-presidents. Go figure.)
- Anyway, even after years of doing it, Lamott still panicked every time she tried to write a review, and things would be awful until she finally picked up that 1-inch picture frame. Then, she'd realize she just had to write a s***ty first draft of the first paragraph and not show it to anyone else.
- After writing a truly terrible first draft, Lamott would knock off work for the day fearing that she might be run over by a car before she could edit, and everyone would read the terrible draft and assume her talent was gone.
- But the day afterward, Lamott would go through that s***ty draft and edit, and the next draft always turned out fine. Sometimes it was even funny and helpful. She'd edit one more time, then send it in.
- The next month, when Lamott had to do another review, exactly the same thing would happen all over again. Writing drafts is a bit like being in Groundhog Day.
- Apparently, almost all good writing really does come from lousy first drafts. Lamott gives some good advice from a friend on writing drafts and then describes all the voices she imagines in her head, complaining about her early drafts.
- Lamott says stopping these voices is at least half the battle when she's writing, but that's actually an improvement. It used to be 87 percent of what she did as a writer.
- Lamott suggests an exercise for getting over these voices—an exercise she says she learned from a hypnotist.
- The hypnotist's advice was to imagine all the voices of guilt or frustration or doubt as little mice. Then, you should imagine picking up each by the tail and dropping it in a mason jar. Imagine the jar has a volume button. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to all the voices. Then, turn it all the way down, and get back to your s***ty first draft.
- There you have it, folks: genuine advice from a published writer. Even if Stuart Little might object.
Part 1, Chapter 4
- Lamott isn't so keen on perfectionism. In fact, she says it's the voice of the oppressor and the enemy of the people.
- Besides, it's the main thing standing between you the writer and a "s***ty first draft," and we just learned how important the s***ty first draft is.
- Then, Lamott tells a story about a very simple cure to a health problem that really doesn't sound like it should work. After having her tonsils out when she was 21, she was in a lot of pain, and a nurse told her that our muscles cramp up around a wound. The nurse said to chew some gum, which would relax her cramped muscles and take away the pain. Surprisingly, this worked.
- Lamott says our mental muscles can get cramped up around an injury the same way our physical ones can. Perfectionism is one way our mental muscles cramp.
- Lamott explains ways to get over perfectionism. She says it's easier if you believe in God, but it can still be done if you don't. In her mind, God might be able to ease your perfectionism, but if you don't believe in God, then you can still learn to be more compassionate to yourself. You can imagine your own writing as the writing of a close friend, which you would probably encourage and support even if you also made a few suggestions for improvement.
- Basically, Lamott says, getting over perfectionism is pretty key for being able to get anywhere as a writer. Perfectionism will drive you crazy: "[M]esses are the artist's true friend" (4.9).
Part 1, Chapter 5
- Even though she planned to tell us every single thing she knows about writing, Lamott decides in this chapter to tell us every single thing she knows about school lunches. Same thing, right?
- Actually, Lamott says the longings and dynamics and anxieties of writing and school lunches are similar—and besides, talking about them will show how short assignments and s***ty first drafts can produce some amazing details and characters.
- When panicked students call Lamott and say they can't write, she asks about school lunches. This gives the students some material and makes them feel better. Lamott says that writing about school lunches for even half an hour can generate a vast amount of material. So, she sometimes asks students to focus on sandwiches.
- Lamott gives an extended example of writing about sandwiches. She says no one knows if the material will be usable, but you've got to get it all down on paper first. She tells a story to reinforce this point.
- Sometimes the students are a bit stuck here, and they ask what they should write about.
- Lamott says to write about carrot sticks. Bugs Bunny would be happy.
- Lamott gives an example of her own writing about carrot sticks. She points out how the writer who has just jotted down a bunch of stuff about school lunches now has a ton of material. The next day, that writer can pick out the best stuff and get working on it.
- When she sits down the next day, Lamott is most likely to choose something she jotted down about a boy leaning against the fence during school lunch, someone a little different from the others who almost certainly became a writer. Already, it's bigger than carrot sticks.
Part 1, Chapter 6
- Back when Lamott was writing this book in the '90s, the Backstreet Boys were new and people had Polaroid cameras. Now Polaroids are called Fujifilm Instax, but the idea is the same: you snap a shot, and the camera pops out a photo that develops right there in front of your eyes.
- There's a short time when the photo is developing and you can see it taking shape, but you don't know quite what will come out.
- Lamott says writing is like using a Polaroid. First you just point the camera at something and take a snapshot. In the last chapter, she pointed the camera at her school lunch bag, but as the picture developed, she noticed the boy leaning against a fence.
- Anne gives lots of examples of other things an author might see as the Polaroid develops, and we can see how things that weren't even noticed at first might come to define what's important in the picture.
- You can't tell at first how a piece of writing will develop. She says, "You just knew that there was something about these people that compelled you, and you stayed with that something long enough for it to show you what it was about" (6.2).
- Lamott launches into a long and cool story about how one of her articles developed like a Polaroid.
- Time to get a Fujifilm Instax, apparently.
Part 1, Chapter 7
- We hope you liked that Polaroid metaphor from the last chapter because Lamott says your characters will also develop like Polaroids.
- Lamott also introduces another metaphor that helps her understand her characters. A friend of hers says that every single person is given an emotional acre that's their own. It's like getting your own little patch of land, but for your interior life. You can do anything you like with it, as long as you don't hurt others. You can grow fruit trees or flowers. You can leave it alone. You can make it into an auto-wrecking yard or a garage sale.
- You have a fence and a gate, and if someone tries to mess with your acre, you can ask them to leave. Handy feature.
- Lamott says your characters also have an emotional acre. Part of what you're trying to figure out is what that character's acre looks like.
- You may not wind up talking a lot directly about that emotional acre in the story, especially if, say, you're writing an action hero chase scene and the characters don't do a lot of talking.
- But it helps to learn a lot about the interior life of your characters, and this is one way of thinking about it.
- Lamott asks a bunch of helpful questions to help us figure out everything from whom our characters would vote for to whether they'd keep flossing if they had six months to live.
- Lamott says you'll love some of your characters because they're you or some aspect of you and you'll hate some of them for exactly the same reason. She adds that you'll have to let bad things happen to some of them or you won't have much of a story.
- Lamott says to get to know your characters as much as you can, to be sure there's something at stake, and then to let the chips fall where they may.
- Lamott tells us a quote from someone she knows that helps make sense of writing characters. He said, "The evidence is in, and you are the verdict" (7.5). This is totally true of characters, once you've finished writing them. Eventually, they'll be their own verdict on their behavior and interior lives.
- But the writer may not know that at first. Lamott says we may only know the externals of the character at the beginning, and not the character's essence.
- Surprisingly, Lamott says not to worry about this. It will come over time, and in the meantime, she offers some questions to get us started.
- Lamott says everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is. She recommends two ways to get started figuring out what kind of an ad your character is: 1) Base your characters on some aspect(s) of your own personality. 2) Base your characters on someone else you know, or a few people you know sort of put together.
- Then we get a flurry of advice on how to figure out who these characters are.
- It all kind of boils down to the following points:
- 1) Write some dialogue for your characters.
- 2) Find out what holds your characters' lives together, what Lamott calls the "basket" that they put their lives in (routines, beliefs, journal entries, whatever lets them make sense of life).
- 3) Find out where those things that hold the characters' lives together are flimsy, just like the holes in a basket.
- 4) Figure out what your characters are teaching their kids, both in what they do and in what they teach.
- Lamott moves on to something another writer told her. She asked Ethan Canin to tell her the most valuable thing he knew about writing. His answer? A likable narrator makes a story work.
- Lamott agrees. She says if we're fascinated by the character's take on things, we won't really care even if the plot is off to a slow start. She says she'd be happy to watch John Cleese or Anthony Hopkins do dishes for an hour because they're so fascinating.
- Besides, a likable narrator is like a good friend who's really fun to be around.
- Okay, so what makes people likable? Lamott says it's our faults. She may have a point here—just imagine a totally polite version of Tony Stark, or Hermione if she didn't get a bit carried away with reciting details from Hogwarts: A History in tense situations.
- Lamott lists a bunch of faults she likes to give to her narrators.
- But a narrator probably should have hope, according to Lamott. It's pretty hard to stick with a narrator who is completely hopeless.
- We all know we're going to die; what's important is who we are in the face of knowing.
- Nothing like a writer to cheer you up, huh?
- Surprisingly, Lamott says a character can be a great narrator even if that character isn't very funny or articulate. (This applies to friends as well, Lamott tells us.)
- Seeing things really clearly can make a character compelling, especially if the character is surviving or has survived quite a lot.
- Lamott says seeing clearly while surviving is inherently interesting since it's what we all have to do.
- Lamott adds that deciding what is interesting is super subjective—people constantly disagree on it.
- Characters should also be reliable. We should have a sense that they're telling us the truth (unless a major point of the character's existence is to be dishonest or manipulative).
- This brings Lamott to a more general point about writers.
- Writers seek the truth and make things up the whole way.
- According to Lamott, you have to tell the exact truth about your characters, even though you're inventing all of it.
- Characters have to feel true to our experience and our understanding of how the world works.
- Lamott signs off for this chapter by reminding us that it will probably take a long time to get to know your characters.
- It's sort of like how getting to know your friends can take a while.
- And just like with friends, it's dangerous to pretend you know more about your characters than they do. It's better to pay attention and listen to them.
Part 1, Chapter 8
- This chapter gets off to a quick start with a basic explanation of plot: it's the main story of a short story or book. Pretty easy, right?
- Lamott tells us where to find more extensive treatments of plot and offers some tips from her own experience:
- 1) Plot grows out of character. Apparently, writers don't have to spend hours trying to come up with a plot all by itself. If you focus on getting to know the characters, something will definitely happen.
- 2) Characters shouldn't be just pawns to work out some plot you've imagined without them; just choosing a plot and trying to get characters to fit into it will cause trouble. If you keep getting to know the characters and keep asking, "Now what happens?" (8.3), then the plot will come. That's because the growing relationship between characters creates plot.
- This book came out before Harry Potter was big, but here's a Harry Potter example: Draco and Harry's dislike of each other keeps getting them into fights and sticky situations. Sometimes it makes even bigger things happen in the plot. Why does this happen?
- It's because the characters care about very different things, and that keeps making them do things that generate plot elements.
- Lamott throws in a cool Flannery O'Connor story and some ideas about Faulkner for no extra charge, too, so you can quote her in AP American Lit and impress everybody. It's a good deal.
- All right, but how do we actually get to know the characters we're creating? Lamott has a tip on this one, too. She says, "Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what's at stake" (8.6).
- Lamott says if you can turn what each character cares most about into action, you're on your way; having something at stake is what keeps the tension going and what keeps the reader turning pages. She compares this to having a puck in a hockey game—it makes the whole thing happen.
- Next, we get a little bit about how this process of finding out what matters to the characters works for Lamott herself and how we can probably expect it to work for us.
- There's a lot of sitting at your desk and waiting and a lot of jotting down stuff and not being sure if it's going to work.
- This theme should be sounding pretty familiar because according to Lamott and about 97 percent of other writers, it's what writers actually do all day. (Okay, we made that 97 percent figure up. After all, this isn't a statistics lesson.)
- Lamott says discovering the story that grows out of the characters may happen on and off, not all in a rush.
- Eventually, we'll need a smooth story that rolls along seamlessly. But it doesn't have to happen right away.
- After you publish, your readers can't ask you about transitions you forgot or small and necessary details that never made it into the story. But in the meantime, it's just fine for the process to roll along well one day and get completely stuck the next.
- It's probably a good idea to have a friend read some of your material. The friend may be able to see things you don't or convince you to cut things that you really want to keep but nobody else will get.
- Lamott compares this hypothetical friend to her friend Al, who took other people's cats to the pound when they had to be put down and their owners couldn't bear the thought of doing it themselves. Gee, writing makes Anne Lamott so optimistic.
- Speaking of optimism, the next section starts out with a description of one of Lamott's assignments: to write about two married people who are considering divorce until something unexpected happens. She says that when she hands out this assignment to 30 students, she gets 30 extremely different stories.
- Lamott uses this example to segue into explaining what drama does for a story and how we can create it as writers (other than watching all the plot twists in Downton Abbey).
- Drama is what holds the reader's attention, and Lamott gives us a handy-dandy formula: setup, buildup, payoff (like what you do in an average joke). How does this work? According to Lamott, like the following:
- 1) Setup: tells us what game we're playing. This is the part that gives all the initial information, like "a high school senior, an insurance salesman, and an SAT test writer walk into a Starbucks."
- 2) Buildup: is all the forward motion as the stuff we set up plays out. In the buildup, stuff happens because of the setup. For instance, the salesman might offer to insure the high school student against bad SAT scores, the test writer might argue that's not possible, and the police officer at the next booth might accuse the salesman of insurance fraud. A fight might break out.
- 3) Payoff: answers the question of why we are even here. This part tells us why we bothered to read the story in the first place. Maybe we find out that this incident convinced the student to skip the SATs and go straight into business, where improbably that student made billions of dollars overnight. Or maybe we discover that the police officer and the insurance salesman are long-lost twin brothers, and it took this moment for them to find each other. Basically, it's why we care about the story.
- Setup, buildup, payoff: this is a useful little formula to have.
- Next, Lamott offers a warning: writers should not try to give a character plot actions that don't fit who the character is. Writers rarely get away with this, and readers become bitter and resentful when this happens.
- We're betting that bitter and resentful readers aren't so great at shooting a book to the top of the bestseller list.
- What if this has already happened in one of your drafts?
- Lamott suggests revisiting your own thoughts and feelings and imagining what these people would do in a particular circumstance. She thinks that will fix the problem.
- Lamott spends a while describing the slow process of getting the right characters and the right plot. This is encouraging for any writer who feels stuck.
- Then, the chapter moves on to describing the climax of a plot. Lamott explains it this way: "The climax is that major event, usually toward the end, that brings all the tunes you have been playing so far into one major chord, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed. If someone isn't changed, then what is the point of your story?" (8.16).
- Whatever happens in the climax, it needs to feel inevitable, like it's exactly the way this particular story has to end.
- Lamott thinks this is most likely to be true if you've taken a while to figure out what the climax is and it has come from getting to know the characters. You may discover that "your characters had something in mind all along that was brighter and much more meaningful than what you wanted to impose on them" (8.17).
- As she wraps up the chapter, Lamott offers one more formula she learned from a writer named Alice Adams. The formula is ABDCE, which stands for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending. Here's roughly how that plays out in a short story, according to Lamott's summary of Adams.
- Action: Adams recommends that writers start a short story with an action that gets readers' attentions and makes them want to know more.
- Background: This is where the writer fills in who the characters are and what was happening before the story started.
- Development: In this stage, the writer explores more about the characters and shows what they care about most. The plot grows out of that.
- Climax: The plot builds to this huge action near the end, and after the climax, things are different in some real way for the main characters.
- Ending: This section explores who the characters are now that the climax has changed things for them, and it makes sense of what happened and what it meant.
- Lamott closes the chapter by saying that a formula can be a great way to get yourself rolling on a story, like getting yourself into the water if you want to swim. Once you're there, she says, you do whatever stroke you can remember and get moving.
Part 1, Chapter 9
- You know how a conversation between Beckett and Castle is more fun to listen to than, say, your average lunch conversation? Lamott is going to tell us how to make our characters sound more like Castle. Or, at least better than your average lunchroom chatterer.
- Dialogue can be really fun to read or really awful, according to Lamott. In fiction, the trick is to show who your characters are while also giving them language that doesn't make anyone wince when they read it aloud.
- Lamott says dialogue should sound more like a movie than like real life and that good dialogue can really get the plot moving. Unsurprisingly, this takes work and skill from the author, but Lamott is here to help with a few tips:
- 1) Read the dialogue aloud and see how it sounds. You might find yourself listening to other people's words and editing them down to good novel dialogue in your head. Apparently that's just one of those things that happens to writers after a while.
- 2) Remember that you should be able to identify each character by what that character says. All the characters need to sound different from each other, and even harder, they shouldn't all sound like you, the author. Really hearing what each character says may show you a lot of other things about your characters, too, from what kind of car they drive to whether they're going to marry another character. We're betting you can tell Batman's dialogue apart from the Joker's without trying too hard, for example.
- 3) Try putting two people who really want to avoid each other together. Speaking of Batman and the Joker, Lamott thinks you'll get interesting results if you put two people who really want to avoid each other in the same elevator and then imagine that it gets stuck. She says seeing what the characters do and don't say in such a situation will tell you a lot.
- After these useful tips, Lamott reminds us that dialogue is the way to nail character. She basically says you have to stick a character in a situation of some sort and see what comes out of that character's mouth.
- For instance, you could imagine a guy walking down a street and wearing a leather topcoat to keep out the cold, and see what happens when he meets a beautiful girl with a harelip and a Gucci bag. If you jam on dialogue for a while, something will happen.
- The better you know the characters, the more you'll understand their points of view.
- Lamott warns us to be sure we're drawing on the real world and not fiction when we write characters and start imagining their viewpoints.
- Understanding characters this way should lead to compassion for them, even when they're villains. Or especially when they're villains.
- Unless you're writing a formula movie or a comic book, the villain can't be wholly evil. There will be good things about the villain and flaws in the hero in most other genres.
- To describe these things well, though, you can't just write down whatever pops into your head. You'll have to understand something about your heroes and villains deep down to make things really work.
- Lamott says it's important to remember that, in a way, your characters come from your unconscious mind, and you sort of have to pick a stock character and then pay a lot of attention to what your unconscious is telling you in order to make that person real.
- In a certain way, you're just the typist writing down what your unconscious mind creates, and you'll have to listen carefully to be a good typist.
- Basically, it's helpful to imagine your unconscious as a collaborator you can learn from. Sometimes this makes a writer feel less alone.
- Lamott says dialogue written in dialect is usually a pain to read. If you turn out to be brilliant at writing dialect and everyone loves it, that's fine—but otherwise, you should skip it.
Part 1, Chapter 10
- According to Lamott, every room is about memory, and a room gives us lots of information about ourselves and our characters.
- In other words, getting the setting of your piece right will do a lot for you in a novel, just like in a movie.
- What if you're writing about a setting you haven't experienced? Let's say your book is about a teenage billionaire, and unfortunately, you don't have billions just yet. Lamott says you can ask other people. You can just find a teenage billionaire and ask that person. Okay, that's not exactly what Lamott says, but it's close enough.
- Lamott gives an example of how well this works. She once wrote a novel with a character who loved to garden. Lamott isn't super into gardening. In fact, she admits to having AstroTurf and plastic flowers in her front yard.
- Lamott says that the garden is one of the two great metaphors for humanity, the other being the river. She knew she needed awesome gardening details to get that metaphor to work in her novel, but she wasn't learning too much about it from the AstroTurf. So, she called up a plant nursery and asked someone there to help her plan a fictional garden. The guy on the other end was very happy to do this for her, and he even let her call up every few months and ask what would be happening in the garden at that time.
- Sure beats weeding.
- Lamott did do some other research for her garden setting: she toured other people's gardens, bought a book, and asked lots of questions.
- Believe it or not, all of this worked. When Lamott's book came out, people actually believed that she loved to garden.
- So there you have it. You can fool everyone and get paid for it as a writer, and it's not even fraud. It's just part of the job.
Part 1, Chapter 11
- Professional writers are like the Olympic athletes of language, so of course they always know what they're doing, right?
- Sometimes, Lamott thinks she knows where a story or a character is going, and she turns out to be dead wrong. Believe it or not, this happens to a lot to writers, so Lamott gives us a brief guide to getting through it in this chapter.
- Lamott learned a lot about this by visiting a nursing home. The first time she visited, she thought she knew who the residents were. She says if she'd written about it, she would have been confident—and also completely wrong.
- Now that she's been going to the nursing home for four years, Lamott sees all sorts of things she missed at first, like how each person there claps along with music.
- Lamott says if she'd written about this experience right away, she would have emphasized smells and confusion and written about the sense of waste she feels (maybe because the people there have lost so much?). But now, she says, she's learned something from an image a medieval monk used: Brother Lawrence said that everyone is like a tree in winter, without growth or leaves, but loved unconditionally by God.
- Lamott says, "When you write about your characters, we want to know all about their leaves and colors and growth. But we also want to know who they are when stripped of the surface show. So if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren't" (11.7).
- This is something we can learn most directly from dying people. When someone is dying, often the external attributes of that person drop away. Then, we realize that the package of traits we thought was the person isn't actually who that person is; instead, we see something beautiful that was hidden.
- So there you have it—hang out with dying people if you want to be good at writing characters. Literary writing, folks. Tons of fun.
Part 1, Chapter 12
- Ready for trouble? Lamott is about to tell us a story about one of the most awful things that could happen to writer. It's worse than flunking your English final, maybe even worse than having to repeat 12th grade.
- Lamott starts off by telling us that her students assume well-respected authors know what they're doing and where their plot is going when they sit down to write. Guess what? This isn't true at all. All the experienced writers she knows flail around and complain and get desperate when they start a new book.
- Sometimes writers have a particular scene or something they're writing toward instead of a plot, and sometimes by the time they get there, they realize it's all wrong because of everything else that has happened to their characters along the way.
- Lamott then describes what happened to her while she was writing her second novel. And boy, is it grim. She was writing the novel with a particular image in mind, and when she finally got there, it just didn't work.
- So, Lamott waited for a few days and eventually felt she knew how the book should end and how it would all come together. This is two years into the writing process. She's been sending small chunks one at a time to her editor at Viking.
- The editor has been loving the characters and the writing style, but after he finishes reading the full second draft, something terrible happens. He sends Lamott a letter that starts off, "This is perhaps the hardest letter I've ever had to write" (12.4). Basically, the editor hates to say it, but he thinks the book just doesn't work. He recommends that Lamott start over. From scratch.
- Lamott is pretty upset about this. Especially since she's already spent most of the advance on the book. She goes into panic mode, plus grief. She calls someone who loves her work, and that woman tells her to take a month off and then come back to the book, and everything will somehow be okay.
- Lamott rents a room in a beautiful rural setting and takes a month off. Finally, she looks at the book again. She still loves what she's doing in the book, and she's confident she can get it to work with more effort. She calls her editor and explains this, and of course, he's genuinely happy.
- Lamott takes the pages of her 300-page manuscript and starts laying them out on the living room floor, physically moving various scenes around until she has the plot of the novel together the way she wants it. She adds in transitions and makes notes and improves the story, and then she starts writing a third draft.
- After working hard for eight or nine months and sending sections to the editor (he loves them), she sends the final section along. This happens to be right around the time she breaks up with a man she's been with for a while. She decides to borrow the money for a ticket to New York, spend a week there working with the editor, and pick up the last third of the advance from Viking.
- Lamott borrows $1,000 from her aunt, tells the man she's seeing to get all his stuff out of her house, and flies to New York.
- Lamott arrives at the editor's office, ready to start final editing on the manuscript, and something even worse happens. The editor says, "I'm sorry." Then he says, "I am so, so sorry." Then he says, "But it still doesn't work" (12.13).
- The editor doesn't understand why the plot does what it does and why not much seems to happen in it. He feels bad about it, but he can't change the fact that he just thinks the book doesn't work.
- Lamott is completely shocked. She pretty much falls apart. At first, she can't even cry. Then, she starts to cry and says she has to leave.
- The editor says to call him the next day. Lamott says she will, though she tells the reader that she didn't actually expect to be alive by then.
- Lamott then goes out and gets tanked.
- Unsurprisingly, Lamott wakes up depressed the next morning. She looks at her manuscript and then gets furious. She calls her editor at home. He's also depressed and isn't planning to go to work that day. Lamott announces she's coming over to see him.
- The editor is silent for a while, and then he very hesitantly says, "Okay." Lamott says it sounded like he wanted to ask if she would be bringing her knives.
- Lamott arrives at her editor's house, and he tries to talk her into sitting down. Instead, she stalks around his living room, making a case for why the book actually can work. She explains things that she had thought were clear in the manuscript, and she fills in details she had forgotten to put in. She thinks aloud about how she could improve some of the big problems her editor has spotted.
- Finally, Lamott finishes her rant, and her editor thanks her. They sit silently for a while. At last her editor says, "Listen. I want you to write that book you just described to me. You haven't done it here. Go off somewhere and write me a treatment, a plot treatment. Tell me chapter by chapter what you just told me in the last half hour, and I will get you the last of the advance" (12.17).
- Lamott does just that over the next month. It finally works. Her editor is impressed, and she gets the last of the advance. She can pay back her aunt and pay her expenses long enough to write another draft.
- Finally, there's a happy ending: the book comes out the next fall and turns out to be the most successful of Lamott's novels at the time Bird by Bird was written.
Part 1, Chapter 13
How Do You Know When You're Done?
- The students in Lamott's classes always ask how you know when you're done. Lamott says she doesn't quite know how to answer that question. Apparently, you just know.
- There will always be a bit more you could do, but eventually you will realize that you are done, and it's time to move on to the next thing.
- Lamott says that people in recovery from addiction say that getting all the addictions under control is like putting an octopus to bed. According to Lamott, that's what finishing your final draft is like, too. You get one problem under control and another pops out, like an octopus tentacle coming up from under the covers.
- But basically, there will come a point when you've done a lot of fixing and you're completely exhausted and even though the manuscript isn't perfect, it's the best you can do for now, and then you're done.
Part 2, Chapter 14
Part Two: The Writing Frame of Mind
- Lamott explains this chapter pretty clearly going in, but there's a twist. Here's how she starts off: "Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on" (14.1).
- Seems nice enough. But then our author adds, "Now, if you ask me, what's going on is that we're all up to here in it, and probably the most important thing is that we not yell at one another" (14.1).
- Okay, maybe writing isn't all fun and games. Lamott goes on to say that writing means you see people suffer and try to find some meaning in it. This requires respect.
- The way Lamott tells it, writers basically need to see others as they really are, and to do this, writers also have to know themselves in a way that is honest but compassionate. She says it sounds simple, but it's tricky to actually do it.
- Lamott gives some examples of ways we can see other creatures with what she calls "compassionate detachment" (14.4), and then she explores how to see yourself that way. She suggests practice. Apparently, it's like exercise—you get better as you do it more.
- Training your mind to do this is also like trying to house-train a puppy.
- To be a writer, you have to be reverent. You need a certain awe for what you're writing about, a certain openness to the world around you.
- Lamott recommends walking around with a child who is so young that everything seems new and amazing. That's what she thinks people are supposed to be like, especially writers.
- If you ask Lamott, paying attention in this way can fill you with joy. If you believe in God, you can see God in everything. If you don't, you can be surprised by the world itself and what happens in nature and human beings.
- Seeing things this way and writing about them truthfully is a source of hope, according to Lamott. She explores several specific things that might work this way, and she recommends a deep attention to things.
Part 2, Chapter 15
The Moral Point of View
- Harry Potter is a great story, and one of the things that makes us root for Harry is that he's fighting against prejudice and totalitarianism. Maybe it's something like this that Lamott has in mind when she says that authors need to be writing with something at the center, a core set of beliefs they really care about.
- Lamott says that the things we really believe in will probably feel like they're true in all times and places. But she also says those aren't the kinds of truths you can just stick on the page and be done with. The whole book will have to be about these truths, and it will have to be layered and complex. That's because these kinds of truths are something beyond our ordinary understanding: "We are dealing with the ineffable here—we're out there somewhere between the known and the unknown, trying to reel in both for a closer look. This is why it may take a whole book" (15.3).
- Yeah, that's different from having an obvious moral or boiling your story down to a message. But Lamott says we will want to communicate the things we're deeply certain are right.
- Early on, writers want to show off their wit and insight, but eventually they move more toward wanting the characters to act out the drama of humanity. That kind of text may not always be full of wit, but a lot of it will be about showing who human beings can be in an ethical way.
- Okay, so this may sound a lot like philosophy class or a lecture. Is that really how we want to write? Lamott realizes readers may be thinking this because she says the word "moral" has bad associations for a lot of people. But she says we have to get over that; she's talking about letting our deepest beliefs drive our writing, not about sticking in a moral or turning a novel into a philosophy textbook.
- According to Lamott, we like certain characters because they're actually good or decent in some way. We want Spider-Man to succeed because Peter Parker is a pretty nice guy, and we root for Dumbledore because for all his flaws he wants to protect other people.
- Even as we care about the good side, though, Lamott says we may also be fascinated by the bad guys. In fact, they're sometimes more interesting. But at the end of the day, Lamott thinks we really all want to see some fairly normal person who has both kindness and selfishness come through and do something courageous and good. We want Harry to be willing to risk his own life to rescue his friends, for example.
- Writers can only really pull that off if they actually believe in what they're writing about, according to Lamott. If J. K. Rowling didn't actually believe in freedom or a fair society, for instance, she wouldn't be able to make Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows convincing. Lamott explores how this works out in Samuel Beckett's plays.
- But writers do need something besides a moral philosophy to make great novels. Lamott deeply admires the philosophy of the 14th Dalai Lama, who says, "My true religion is kindness" (15.10), but she says your agent will want you to do a little more embroidering on that one sentence if you're hoping to get a whole novel out of it.
- Basically, Lamott explains, "So a moral position is not a message. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you" (15.11). Lamott thinks we're all in trouble and need to learn how to take care of each other, and if writers can shed a little light on this and make people laugh into the bargain, that's worth a lot.
- So, according to Lamott, we should write about the things that are most important to us. She gives a short list of things most people are interested in: love, death, sex, survival. She says some people are also interested in God and ecology.
- We also get a gentle warning: if what we happen to care most passionately about is cappuccino enemas (no, we are not making this up—that's what Lamott actually says), then you should give that a miss and talk about freedom and human rights instead.
- Basically, Lamott thinks writers should tell the truth and fight for freedom in whatever way matters most to them.
Part 2, Chapter 16
- Okay, you may be thinking, first a chapter about morality, and now one about broccoli? Does Lamott think she's my mom? But Lamott is pretty snarky about the whole broccoli thing, and she actually has a reasonable point to make about writing, so let's try to bear with her for a bit. At least the chapter isn't called "Brussels Sprouts."
- Lamott says that in a Mel Brooks comedy routine she knows, a psychiatrist tells his patient, "Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it" (16.1).
- When Lamott tells this to students, they look at her as though things are headed downhill fast.
- No kidding.
- But Lamott thinks there is something useful in this comedy phrase for writing. She says when you're stuck as a writer and don't know something, like what a character would do, it's best to quiet down and listen for a small voice inside. That's what she means by "listen to your broccoli."
- Lots of people got in trouble for listening to their intuitions as children and have never recovered, according to Lamott, and writers need to learn how to do it again. She says basically writers need the ability to listen to their intuitions of what's really going on and not shy away from that because it's inconvenient or unpleasant for someone.
- Lamott also says you need your broccoli to write well, which seems to mean, basically, that you need intuition. Without that, you'll be stuck with only your rational mind to lead you, and you'll likely get up long before all the good things that might have happened in your writing day.
- Lamott says the cure for this is to trust yourself, especially in a first draft. According to her, this may require stopping some of the noise your rational mind makes and coaxing the intuition a bit. Lamott gives some specifics on getting this to work.
- Assume that what you're thinking and feeling is valuable, and be naïve enough to get it all written down. If your intuition keeps telling you that what you're doing sucks, you should think twice, just in case it's not really your intuition but your mother—or, you know, someone's respectable voice in your head telling you what to do.
- Lamott thinks you really should let your intuition guide you when you're writing, even if it tells you to put a character in a purple sharkskin suit.
- Writers who listen to respectable voices rather than intuitions about sharkskin suits put people to sleep.
- How do you manage to listen to your intuition? According to Lamott, you have to find a metaphor for it. Broccoli works for her exactly because it's so ridiculous. Another friend imagines his intuition as an animal. Lamott says you need a metaphor that you're not trying to control. If you're lost in the woods, she says to let the horse find the way back home.
- Basically, you have to hypnotize yourself into getting some work done—and then unhypnotize yourself enough to fix it. Lamott's friend Terry says the worst you can do is make a terrible mistake, so you might as well do something. Lamott thinks this is very true in writing. Try something out, and see if it works. If it doesn't, do something else.
- Listen to your broccoli. If you've been working hard for a few hours and you're still not hearing anything from your broccoli, you can have lunch. Hopefully not broccoli.
Part 2, Chapter 17
Radio Station KFKD
- It's time to talk about radio station KFKD, which stands for what you think it does if you've been watching films about prison or organized crime. Lamott is not worried about getting an R rating; she doesn't have to worry about school boards. Shmoop does, so we'll just let you fill in the word in your head.
- Radio station KFKD is Lamott's metaphor for all the stuff in your head that gets in the way of your intuition or, as we learned in the last chapter, your broccoli. She says this station blares over-the-top announcements about how special you are out of one speaker and down-in-the-dumps stuff about all your mistakes and failures out of the other. You can't hear your intuition while this is going on, and unfortunately, it's going on in a lot of writers' heads a lot of the time.
- Lamott recommends extensive therapy, Prozac, and a lobotomy, but we're pretty sure she isn't serious. Her other recommendation is first to realize that KFKD is on. For her, it's on each day when she tries to sit down and write.
- Lamott finds that a short prayer helps her. She says a ritual of some sort might work for you, too, so you could give votive candles, sage smudges, or small animal sacrifices a try, especially now that the Supreme Court has made small animal sacrifices legal. (We're not making this up—she actually says all of that.)
- Basically, rituals tell your unconscious that it's time to get rolling, so they may be worth a try.
- Certain kinds of breathing exercises could also work, according to Lamott. She says she gets nervous about this kind of thing because she fears aromatherapy is right around the corner, but paying attention to your breathing for a bit might calm down radio station KFKD.
- Then, Lamott tells us about actually trying to start after you've done the ritual or the breathing or whatever works for you. She admits that the mind sometimes wanders here and gives some pretty specific examples of how that might happen—but you can gently bring your mind back to the actual writing.
- Stories come to us like a river or the Gulf Stream. There's something there, flowing in our subconscious: if we can align ourselves with it as writers, it will flow through us. Station KFKD will mess up this process, so we need to shut it down and just listen to our subconscious instead.
Part 2, Chapter 18
- Radio station KFKD broadcasts jealousy, according to Lamott, and it's one of the hardest things on the station to shut down.
- If you keep writing, probably other writers who seem less deserving of success are going to do spectacularly well. It may be hard not to feel jealous if this happens.
- Lamott describes in great detail how these kinds of scenarios play out. She reiterates that jealousy is an occupational hazard of being a writer, and she says that there are basically three things that help: 1) Getting older. 2) Talking about it until the fever breaks. 3) Using it as material.
- It also helps if you can get someone to help you start chuckling about your jealousy.
Part 3, Chapter 19
Part Three: Help Along the Way
- This chapter is about not forgetting crucial things, like the scene that would make the perfect climax to a novel. Or the quirky characters you met at summer camp who could be a whole novel in and of themselves.
- Lamott's recommendations are pretty basic: index cards and lists. Gee, do we need to buy a book by a bestselling writer to figure this out? Sounds like what our English teacher recommends for free.
- But Lamott does have some useful tips and good stories about index cards, believe it or not.
- Once you start thinking like a writer, you see practically everything as material. It helps to have a lot of index cards and pens around. That way you can jot everything down before you forget it.
- If you can remember everything without notes, Lamott says that's great, and you don't need index cards. But she also says it's not cheating to take notes. If your brain is naturally disorganized, that doesn't make you a bad writer; you're just a creative type who may need to take notes sometimes.
- Lamott even gives us permission to be disorganized about notes. She says she's inefficient and disorganized about her index cards, but they still help her; writing something down improves her chances of remembering it. Sometimes she keeps a stack of index cards about a project piled on her desk, and these cards give her ideas when she's totally stuck.
- Lamott tells a story about one index card she's had for six or seven years. It says, "The lemonade-making thing" (19.22). Those scribbled words remind her of a funny and poignant story from 25 years ago that she thought of because she smelled lemon perfume when a bicyclist wearing some pedaled past her. She may or may not write about this (other than in this book), but the index card is helping her remember it.
- Index cards are also great for jotting down good lines or specific wordings that come to you at inconvenient moments, according to Lamott.
- Lots of Lamott's index cards wind up in the trash, either because she's used the line in her writing or because she's not as impressed with it later.
- But lots of these are all around the house. Lamott knows where some of them are—and doesn't know where others are. Probably her son will have to throw out a lot of them when she dies, and probably he won't have any idea what some of them mean. Others, though, have stories that mean a lot to her and probably will to her son, and they won't be forgotten because of the index cards. She gives a few examples.
- All in all, the advice in this chapter is kind of a relief: it's fine to be disorganized and forgetful as a writer, and you might be able to remember a few things by using index cards. It's not exactly Super Study Skills for the Advanced Novelist, but it's a lot more fun.
Part 3, Chapter 20
- If Lamott's take on index cards is good news for writers, this chapter might be even better. In it, she explains that you really don't need to know everything about what you're writing about. You can just ask people. Even better, lots of the people you ask will be absolutely thrilled that someone wants to hear what they know about a particular topic.
- Besides, Lamott points out, you can call up experts on a topic you're writing about and count it as part of your writing work that day. (These days, it may be easier to use social media, but either way.)
- Lamott says you'll occasionally stumble on other helpful things while calling around for information. She gives an example from her second novel. In it, a man is trying to open a bottle of champagne on a first date.
- Lamott was describing all of this when she realized that there's a wire thing above most champagne corks, and she had no idea what to call it. She figures a winery should know, so she called the Christian Brothers Winery. The line is busy, so she sits daydreaming for a while and actually gets a great description of a vineyard in fall written down while waiting.
- Lamott tries calling the winery again. No luck. It's still busy. But, as she's hanging up, a friend calls. He wants to talk about his life, but Lamott says, "No, no, talk to me about grapes" (20.8). After hearing the description she's just written, the friend gives Lamott a quote about grapes. She writes that down and feels a happy glow about how much material she's getting.
- At last, Lamott calls and gets the receptionist at the winery. The receptionist doesn't know what the wire thing is called, either, but she transfers Lamott to a monk. Lamott says the monk sounds as though he's 2,000 years old, and he seems genuinely pleased to be able to give her some information. Lamott secretly thinks that he somehow kept going just long enough to help her out, then died happy having shared his knowledge with a desperate writer.
- The monk says the thing on the champagne bottle is called a wire hood.
- Lamott is thrilled. She got some good writing done about vineyards, she got a great quote from a friend, and she learned what a wire hood was.
- As a bonus, Lamott says she can't tell us how many people have been delighted to know what a wire hood is after reading her book. Well, okay, actually she admits it was three people. But they seemed truly pleased.
- Lamott also admits that one of these people was her mother, and mothers do tend to be super excited about books by their children. But, still. The point is, sometimes writers can ask people for knowledge, and sometimes readers are excited about it, too.
Part 3, Chapter 21
- Anne Lamott, like millions of other writers, says a huge aspect of successful writing is doing it every day, and another huge aspect of writing involves whatever happens as writing material.
- As you're going about writing, you sometimes want feedback and some people to talk to. So, you might join a writing class or go to a writing conference or something.
- Lamott says there are lots of realistic reasons to go to a writing class or conference. These include: 1) Wanting to learn more about writing. Yep. Sometimes these things are pretty basic. 2) Wanting some feedback now that you've been writing. 3) Wanting to hang out with other writer types. 4) Wanting someone to sympathize when you get rejection letters or have tough writing days. 5) Wanting to give feedback on other people's writing because it helps you learn about writing in general. 6) Wanting reasonable feedback from people who aren't your pals or your editor but will have good ideas.
- These are all fine reasons, Lamott says. Some people, though, go to these things because they hope they'll be discovered by a famous writer or powerful editor and rocket instantly to fame.
- That isn't very likely. It's not impossible, but it's not really something writers should expect.
- Lamott also warns writers that classes and conferences and workshops can feel a little scary. Someone might be really tough on your story, or you might worry that this will happen. She tells a story about this and gently recommends not to rush into conference critiques until you're ready.
- But Lamott also suggests a good way to get started on getting feedback if you're not ready for conferences: start a writing group.
- Some of Lamott's own writing students have started writing groups, and they've discovered a few advantages to being in them. For one thing, they have to get something written because another meeting is coming up. For another, they have others to talk to when they have bad writing days. Writing group friends can offer empathy and kindness when they're having a rough day.
- Sounds great, huh? Lamott even has ideas on actually getting a writing group started. You can sign up for a creative writing class, then ask people from the class who seem cool to join a writing group. You can stick ads in small newspapers or on bulletin boards, which has worked for many of Lamott's students. Some of Lamott's New Age friends claim that just "putting it out to the universe" (21.21) will work. Lamott seems a little amused by this approach, but she says every single one of those friends wound up in a great writing group, so who knows?
- Then, Lamott describes a group of four students she had in class who went on to form a writing group that has lasted four years at the time of writing. Lamott says they've genuinely become better writers and better people through the group, which is a pretty good advertisement.
- Then, Lamott tells a great story about how those writers help each other out when they're stuck. It's a pretty solid ad for finding a writer's group.
Part 3, Chapter 22
Someone to Read Your Drafts
- Time for the comics: Lamott starts this chapter with a description of a New Yorker cartoon. In it, a writer and an apparently normal person are talking to each other. The writer, presumably describing a publisher, says, "We're still pretty far apart. I'm looking for a six-figure advance, and they're refusing to read the manuscript" (22.1).
- Shmoop did a little research, and you can see the actual cartoon here.
- Anyway, Lamott thinks the kind of person who says this is probably the kind of person who thinks he's too smart to bother with advice from other writers. Occasionally, some famous writer will tell Lamott that she should stop encouraging people to show their work-in-progress to other writers. Lamott says she doesn't argue, but she keeps on telling people to get advice on work-in-progress, anyway.
- So much of writing involves feeling lost or getting things wrong, and there are often lots of ways to tell a story right. Lamott thinks somebody else may be able to spot it when you've found a right way, and it's worth trying to find that somebody.
- It doesn't even really have to be another writer who gives this advice. It could be a close friend or a spouse. Basically, you just need someone who's willing to read drafts and tell you honestly what's going well and what needs work.
- Lamott knows how tough it is when someone tells you that a piece you've been working away at still needs more effort. She says it's normal to think at first that you may not even want to know this person anymore. But eventually you get over it and realize how amazing it is that this person cares so much about you as a person and also your writing and will give you honest and helpful ideas for making it better.
- Lamott describes the two people she trusts to give advice on her work. Then, she describes how the process usually works for her, complete with the part where she wants to stop being friends with her trusted advice-givers because they have a few suggestions and the part where she finally starts to feel grateful.
- It's much better if your friend has a few suggestions than if your agent does. Your agent might give up on you, but your friend is a lot less likely to do that.
- Lamott launches into an extended metaphor describing how scary it can feel getting feedback on your work but also how useful it can be in the end. She compares it to God turning up with a wrecking ball one day and letting you know your whole house needs rebuilding.
- Lamott turns to the question of how to find someone to read your drafts this way. It's about the same as finding a writing group, except you only have to ask one person at a time. You can ask someone from your writing class if you have one, or you can ask a person you already know who likes your writing. Lamott says some of this may feel as scary as asking for a first date in seventh and eighth grade, but she seems to think it's worth it, anyway.
- Next, Lamott turns to a question her students ask her: what if you do find a possible writing partner and that person's responses turn out to be mean and negative? Lamott says basically that if the person is always negative, you should move on. You want someone who's honest but gentle. It has to be someone who keeps encouraging you to write, even if they sometimes think you've got a while to go before publication.
- Lamott says beginning writers make a lot of mistakes, but they should definitely be encouraged to keep writing. And she says the chances are good of finding a good reader for your drafts. She says almost all the writers she has met have found this person eventually.
- Lamott closes with some advice that applies to both dating and to finding a writing partner. Isn't that handy? "It's not unlike finding a mate, where little by little you begin to feel that you've stepped into a shape that was waiting there all along" (22.22).
Part 3, Chapter 23
- Sometimes, writers get super stuck. One of Lamott's tips for getting unstuck is to try telling part of your story, or part of a character's life, as a letter.
- You can pretend you're writing to friends or to a kid, maybe to your own child if you've got one or a niece or nephew.
- Lamott gives some pretty convincing examples of people in her classes who got started this way.
- Then, Lamott admits that she used this technique when she got completely paralyzed trying to write an essay about her Giants fandom. An editor had asked her to write the piece, and she got panicky from all the pressure. She thought about trying to tell her son, Sam, about her fandom, but she was still kind of stuck. So, she asked a bunch of other sports fans what they recalled and then she started writing to Sam.
- It worked. Lamott explains at length all the things she remembered and how she told Sam about them. She even got to a great conclusion because she wrote it all up as a letter.
Part 3, Chapter 24
- Speaking of stuck, Lamott is ready to tackle that fierce monster, writer's block. It's even worse than a Hungarian Horntail, according to lots of writers.
- Lamott says that writer's block will happen sometimes if you're a writer. She offers a funny description of just how bad it can get. She even says that you might start feeling "as if writing a novel is like trying to level Mount McKinley with a dentist's drill" (24.2).
- Luckily, Lamott does have a solution. She says she's come to think of writer's block as looking at a problem from the wrong angle. As she puts it, "If your wife locks you out of the house, you don't have a problem with your door" (24.3). You don't have to be married to get what she's saying here: maybe there's another way to look at writer's block that will help us figure it out.
- Lamott suggests two things for the stuck writer: 1) Acceptance. 2) Writing 300 words a day.
- Okay, so those may sound a little contradictory. Lamott wants us to just accept writer's block, and then she wants us to write? But actually, her advice is pretty solid here.
- We're usually taught to try and fix things if they don't seem to be going well. The trouble is, that may not work with writer's block. Lamott says we should just accept that sometimes we're in an uncreative period, and we should let ourselves refill our tank.
- Lamott also recommends writing 300 words a day when we feel stuck. But here's the great part: they can be 300 words about anything. Even how much we hate writing.
- Then, Lamott spends about a page on another thing writers can try when they're stuck. She says to imagine you're dying tomorrow. What would you want to do? Well, you should do whatever that is. Basically, that will help you pay attention to everything life can be, and eventually that paying attention will give you more stuff to write about.
- Lamott says when you're beginning as a writer, it's important to commit to finishing things. This could be a story or a part of a story. Even if what we're doing right now is just practice, and we start over on something else later, this is the way we'll get better.
- In case this sounds hard, Lamott tells us how hard her last novel was to write. That'll cheer you up, right?
- Seriously, though, it is comforting to hear that famous writers have problems, too.
- Lamott had received a lot of bad reviews on the novel before her last one, so she was feeling kind of worried when she set out to write that new one. She committed to working on the characters in her novel, which sounds like it was a bit less intimidating than promising to finish the whole novel.
- Lamott spent a little time writing each day, and then she went to the movies. No kidding. She says she spent a lot of time walking and going to movies and reading. Finally, it worked. The book started rushing out, and Lamott had to sit down and write as fast as possible.
- We should remember that we're not really in control of our fate or our novels. That's one of the keys to getting things written: accepting that sometimes stuff won't come quickly, and we'll just have to wait and work a little bit and fill up the tank until eventually it gets rolling again. This may not work so well as an excuse for turning in homework late, but it seems to work for Lamott. She keeps publishing stuff.
- Finally, Lamott says that all great stories are already out there, but we can contribute our own way of seeing them. Sure, someone's already told the story of the awesome quest or the fight with the dragon or the little kid growing up. But we each have our own awesome take on it.
- When we're stuck, we should just do our 300 words and let our unconscious get on with telling the story. If we keep pestering our unconscious during writer's block, it will just tell us to shut up and go away.
Part 4, Chapter 25
Part Four: Publication—and Other Reasons to Write
Writing a Present
- Ah, publication. It sounds like the best thing ever. Fame. Fortune. Instagram glory. What's not to like?
- Anne Lamott says it's really not that great. Tragic, huh?
- On the bright side, Lamott also says there are lots of other great reasons to write. Writing can be rewarding in a bunch of ways other than just money and fame.
- Lamott's first reason to write is writing a present. It is the title of the chapter, so maybe that's not a shocker. Lamott says she's written two books that were presents to someone she loved as that person was dying. This may not work for everyone, but Lamott felt honored and happy to be able to tell her father's story, and he got to read it before he died. When he got brain cancer, she was able to write a story for him, and he was able to receive it as a gift and know his story would go on beyond his life.
- Lamott says another reason she wrote that book when her father was dying was that she desperately wanted more funny books about cancer that also helped people understand the experience. Lamott can't find a lot of these at her local library (no kidding), so she keeps writing her own.
- Lamott says this meant a lot to her family. It made her father's last months the best they could be and helped her share the joy and laughter that her family had in the middle of all the terrible things about her father's death.
- Then, Lamott talks about the way she also wrote a present to her friend Pammy 15 years later, when Pammy got breast cancer. Lamott already had a bunch of journal entries about Pammy because Lamott had been journaling about her young son, Sam, and Pammy was helping out a lot. Lamott was able to write up a lot of her journal entries and share that story with Pammy before her death, and it also meant that Pammy's daughter Rebecca would have another way to remember her mom.
- Lamott also felt like her book might be a gift to other single mothers. There seemed to be a lack of sarcastic parenting books out there, and Lamott thought she could help.
- Lamott put both of these stories together in her book and hoped the book could be a present both for the people she was close to and for other people with similar experiences.
- So there we have it folks, presents and sarcasm: two great reasons to write.
- Then, Lamott tells a pretty moving story about a later time when someone close to her lost her new baby, Brice, and Lamott eventually found a way to write a present about him.
- Finally, Lamott gives some advice. She says telling our stories about difficult things can help other people and that it's worth doing. She recommends writing a self-indulgent first draft that just has everything you want to put in it. Then, she suggests going back through and cutting out whatever you can of the self-indulgent parts and keeping the parts that are most likely to be interesting or helpful to others.
- According to Lamott, you may still find critics who can't appreciate what you wrote or who think it's too personal, but that's okay. The important thing, for Lamott herself, is that she got to write for two people she loved and respected, and they also loved and respected her. That's a pretty amazing audience.
- Okay, Lamott is also a New York Times bestselling author, so her audience is a teeny bit bigger than two people. But the point holds.
Part 4, Chapter 26
Finding Your Voice
- Yeah, Shmoopers, it's not that easy to summarize a chapter about finding your own voice since, you know, you can't actually summarize something like voice. So we're gonna make it real simple:
- 1) Writers need to find their own voices.
- 2) Writers can try out writing in other people's styles as a way to find their own.
- 3) Finding your voice as a writer will probably involve finding out what truths you most care about and what way of talking about them is your
- 4) That's probably going to involve facing all your own personal angst and frustration, along with the things you find most beautiful and amazing
- 5) You'll probably feel somehow like you're coming home when you finally do start to find your voice.
- Lamott says this a lot better than we do. Just go read the chapter again.
Part 4, Chapter 27
- Giving might be another reason to write, besides the fame and glory Lamott isn't so sure we're going to get.
- Like a great band covering a hit by another great group, Lamott starts off this chapter by talking about Annie Dillard. Dillard is also an amazing writer, so her advice is likely to be solid. Here's what Lamott says: "Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more" (27.1).
- This is a pretty radical thing to say, according to Lamott. She says she's always trying to find loopholes in it. It's probably a bit like telling your 4-year-old brother or sister that sharing will make them happier than getting new toys. It may be true in some grown-up version of the world, but the average 4-year-old isn't sold on it.
- But Lamott also says that she keeps finding Dillard's advice to be true, even though it doesn't seem very likely.
- Lamott says writing is full of giving. It's practically like working for NBA Cares. Without so many butterfly-shaped basketballs.
- Lamott says writing is also a lot like being the single parent of a 3-year-old with strong opinions. The kid may love you one minute and pull your hair out the next 'cause that's just what 3-year-olds do.
- Lamott says your kids and your books somehow belong to you, and you have to take care of them because you helped them come into existence.
- The payoff is that we'll stop being stuck inside ourselves and start learning to live unselfishly for someone else. Okay, it doesn't sound quite as glamorous as signing autographs for Chris Hemsworth because he's starring in the film version of your book, but still, Lamott sees it as a genuine reason to write, and she is a bestselling author.
- Assuming we buy this reason for writing, which sounds super admirable if not super glamorous, what might help us be giving in our writing? Lamott says there are two things:
- 1) The first thing is to imagine everyone we meet as a patient in a hospital emergency room. People in the ER probably have gaping wounds and serious confusion, and that's how Lamott sees life in general. It's easier to give to people in an ER. And sometimes just the right line in a book gives people a sense of connection and community, even if
they do need to get three separate casts for their injuries. Lamott
wants to give them that. The connection, that is, not the injuries.
- 2) The second thing is to think of the gifts other writers have given, and write as if for them.
- Maybe there's a writer who's given you something amazing. Whether it's Harry Potter or Divergent or The Dark Knight (hey, film scripts have writers, too), there's probably some world or character or something that has made your life way better.
- If you think of one of these writers who's given you a gift while writing, it's much easier to write the best thing you can. Lamott says this feels like hosting an amazing party, being the writer who can give an incredible book to others.
- Lamott tells us a story about what it means to be giving, and she says that basically writers have to be sophisticated and naïve at the same time. She says humans are supposed to be open to the world instead of closed off, and that a good writer can help people be courageous enough to do that.
- Lamott also says you don't have to be an optimist to write in a way that helps other people be open to the world. No kidding. She has a priest friend who says he's a cheerful pessimist, and that's good enough.
- We then get a long joke about a gorilla.
- The point is that writers can help other people be courageous and open, and it takes a heck of a lot of courage and giving for a writer to be able to do that. But it's worth it.
Part 4, Chapter 28
- Looks like Lamott has finally finished telling us good reasons to write other than getting famous because she's finally giving us a chapter about publication. And why not?
- Sure, Lamott may be right that all that stuff like giving and finding your voice is better than getting published, but who doesn't want at least a little bit of a shot at getting some work out there?
- Lamott still calls it "the myth of publication" (28.1), but she's going to tell us about it at least.
- Lamott describes herself when she's waiting to hear back from an agent or an editor. If her picture of obsessive nervousness doesn't make you think twice about the publication process, not much will.
- Eventually, Lamott gets around to describing what happens after you do find out your book will be published. She says things are good for some months as you work through all the final editing and preparation.
- Once again, Lamott describes the hopes people have about publication. She talks about how people seem to think it will change their lives dramatically, give them real confidence, and make everything amazing.
- Lamott says this isn't what happens for her. For her, getting published is kind of like a cross between the last few weeks of pregnancy and the first day of seventh-grade gym class. If Lamott sounds ambivalent about publishing, she is.
- It all starts out okay. The publisher sends you a paperbound book with your work set in type. (These are called bound galleys, in case you ever need to impress someone.) When Lamott gets these, she's deeply relieved because she feels like the publisher is too far in to cancel on her. (The publisher actually wasn't planning to cancel, but that's not the point when you're being obsessive.) Reviewers are also getting these galleys.
- The writer's first read-through of the galleys is wonderful. However, the following readings get scarier and scarier as the writer sees typos and gets more and more worried about whether anyone will like the book.
- Early reviews are a mixed bag, in Lamott's opinion. Some think your work is fantastic, and some think the opposite, but you somehow hold on until the actual publication date.
- Lamott says the actual publication date will feel seriously epic as you anticipate it, and you'll be expecting the publisher to send the Blue Angels by in celebration. Or flowers, anyway.
- Then, Lamott tells the story of the time she and her friend Carpenter had books coming out on the same day and how they both expected a huge amount of attention that day and got very little. Then, they sent each other flowers. She says publication dates are often like this, but without the flowers.
- Basically, Lamott still doesn't think publication is going to mean fame and fortune for really anyone. She describes how it's generally pretty anticlimactic—and eventually, if you're a writer, you will get a very bad review.
- Lamott does have some good news about publication, though. Publication does mean that the community of other writers and editors and so on have recognized the work you're doing, and they can see you're doing something right. Lamott says you also get to make a living doing something you love. (Note: a living wage may not be guaranteed by the first book. Lamott is also pretty honest in this book about the fact that writing hasn't made her super rich.) But she says you will get a quiet joy from knowing all of this.
- You still have to start writing the next darn thing, though. Lamott says you have confidence after you've been published because you've been published, but you're also terrified because you have to do it again.
- Lamott says the thing to do is just write hard until you get through this phase, and eventually you'll remember again that "the real payoff is the writing itself" (28.20).
- For any readers who feel like Lamott is being a downer, she says that the good hours writing are pretty fantastic, but so are her son and her church and her family and friends.
- But Lamott does believe that we can find real satisfaction in being writers, in getting some work done most days on writing projects, and even in getting published and being recognized as a writer.
- Then, she tells some stories about how many ways it can go wrong if you try to build all your self-esteem around being a published writer. Bottom line? The coach in Cool Runnings is pretty much right when he says, "If you're not enough before the gold medal, you won't be enough with it" (28.36). Ditto for publication. Lamott knows her '90s sports films, apparently. Maybe it was all those matinees she went to while she had writer's block.
- Finally, Lamott adds one more thing. When a book she wrote did pretty well, she found herself going a little crazy from all the attention. She knew she should stop paying attention to all the buzz, but she couldn't stop, either. So, she went to see the pastor at her son's preschool. He told her that you can't get peace from the world; you have to find it in your heart.
- Lamott said she hated that.
- The preschool pastor sympathized, but he also said that if you can find peace in your heart, the world can't take it away.
Part 5, Chapter 29
Part 5: The Last Class
The Last Class
- You know how at the end of a class everything feels kind of momentous? Maybe the whole class is thrilled because they will never, ever have to take AP Calculus again. Or maybe everyone is sad because they will never, ever get to perform a psychedelic version of Little Shop of Horrors together in drama class again.
- Either way, it kind of feels important. Lamott's whole last section is just one chapter, called "The Last Class." She tells us what she tells her students in the last class of her writing workshop, and it feels kind of momentous, too.
- Lamott says there are a ton of things she wants to say in the last class. She reminds people to write about their childhoods, and she reminds them why she thinks it's important.
- Lamott also says that growing into a writer is about becoming conscious. We think she probably means "able to pay attention to things around you" conscious, not "jolted awake by your horrible, blaring alarm clock" conscious. Lamott thinks a writer who is conscious and really cares about truth can turn on the lights for readers. The readers will be able to recognize the truths of their own lives in that writer's work, and they won't feel so alone.
- Lamott says writers should have the courage to write honestly and directly about emotions. It will be scary to put real emotion at the heart of what you're doing, but it's worth risking vulnerability. She says this will make you a revolutionary because truth is always subversive.
- This last class is kind of a grab bag of things Lamott wants her students to know. The next thing she says is that you can write from vengeful motives, as long as you're nice about it. She thinks you should write about bad things that happen to you, partly so you can process them and partly to get revenge.
- This leads into a section on libel. Peter Parker could have used this one. If you're the kind of student who loves legal details, you can read more about libel in Shmoop's history of American journalism (scroll to the heading "Libel and Obscenity"). If you're not, here's how Lamott introduces it: "Libel is defamation by written or printed word. It is knowingly, maliciously saying things about people that cast them in a false or damaging light" (29.6). You can be sued if you libel someone.
- Lamott basically says that if you want to write about someone real who did nasty things to you, you should change some details of the story. This serves two purposes: 1) It makes the person not recognizable enough to sue you. 2) If you change the right details, it makes the person completely uninterested in claiming that you might have been talking about him or her.
- After libel, Lamott tackles the subject of feeling sorry for yourself. She says to try not to, as much as you can. If you want to write, do it. Then, she imagines artists as people who are building sand castles, people who think that maybe the symbols we make in the sand outlive the castles that get swept away by the ocean. Or maybe we'll be able to divert the ocean. Lamott says that's a great kind of person to be.
- Lamott says she's almost done with the class at this point, and it's starting to feel like the farewells at summer camp while you're waiting for everything to be put on the bus.
- Lamott says that by now, she thinks she's told her students every single thing she knows about writing. She gives a quick review. She says lots of her students want to be published, and lots of them are not going to get fame and fortune that way, but she still thinks they should write with everything they've got, hopefully every day for the rest of their lives.
- Then, Lamott takes one final stab at convincing everyone that the writing really is its own reward. She dives into a really beautiful final few pages on this topic, in fact. She says that for some people, the literary life is as good as it gets. It's downright beautiful.
- On top of that, you can become a great reader by becoming a better writer, and that's no small advantage in itself. It's like watching a great pitch or home run—it's even more impressive if you can do it yourself.
- And sometimes, when you sit down to write, you have a knock-it-out-of-the-park great time.
- Lamott has some fantastic writing days. Of course, she has a lot of bad writing days, too—but at least she has something to show for it. She thinks this might be a little bit like building the pyramids—at least you can see what you've done.
- Lamott says our society seems to be dying. She says good writers can mirror society honestly and also hollow out a small place where people can be at home. This will require looking at your own angst, which is hard.
- But Lamott says it's worth it, if you find your real place among writers and readers. If you describe something really true, you'll feel kind of noble, in a quiet sort of way.
- Anyway, Lamott thinks that you've done something honorable by writing, even if only a few people read your work. You might even help a few of them. Your work will be sort of like a lighthouse; as it shines, it will point people in the right direction.
- Basically, you can see your work as a chore or as an art. Lamott obviously thinks it's better to work as though it's an art and to have a good time doing it.
- Maybe life is a little bit like a wedding. You can't just yell that you're at a wedding and everyone should have cake. You really need to make a world that people can enter into as a writer before they can see they're at a wedding. For Lamott, being able to do that requires discipline and trust and courage. She says we'll have to ask ourselves how alive we're willing to be.
- Lamott says the best thing about being an artist is that your work is satisfying. You can pour your whole self into it.
- Lamott says her students often look at her and ask why their writing matters.
- Well, writing matters because it feeds the spirit and connects us to other people. Writing lets us see truths about life and learn to laugh about it. She says it keeps us from getting squashed by how absurd life is, and it lets us dance or clap along. In case it's all getting a little too Hallmark-y, Lamott pulls out a funky, grim image: she says writing is a bit like singing during a horrible storm on the ocean.
- The book ends, "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).
- Maybe it's grim, but it's kind of hopeful, too.
- That's Anne Lamott for you.