Month: March 2022

An Old Treasure

While looking for something else on my reference shelf,  I came upon Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. It wasn’t the reference I sought, but I took it down anyway. I’d read the book years ago when I was just beginning my writing journey. As I remember, it left me a bit confused. Now that I’ve been in the trenches for a while I found myself shouting Yes! to her observations. Her metaphorical approach to writing that had left me puzzled at the start of my career, now resonated on every level.

After attending many, many workshops and reading many, many “how to write” books, I questioned if I could  write fiction. I can draw up charts, do character interviews, fill in the blanks in plot sentences, create deep and wide back story. But when it comes to writing the tale  it will not conform to all those patterns laid out by generous and wise writers. Having spent weeks plotting an outline, I’ll run off course by the end of the first chapter. For me, the cerebral act of plotting does not connect to the intuitive act of story. 

My story has to grow organically. I don’t know what happens next until I get there. I don’t know what happened before until something happens “now” that makes the “before” relevant. My name is Alice Valdal and I’m a pantser.

Imagine my relief then, when Ms Lamott says that a writer may stare out the window for hours while waiting for a good idea. A writer will write thousands of words that don’t belong in the story but need to be put on paper anyway. Observing, reflecting, writing it down are ways to make sense of ourselves and the world we live in.

The act of writing is its own reward.

Publication is a whole other thing.

Many books on writing advise the would-be author to focus, to keep her head down and plug away on her important work every day. Don’t waste time warming up your writing engines writes the guru.

Ms Lamott suggests the opposite. Her first word of advice is to write some short assignments just to help you get started. Tell a story from childhood, describe your prom dress, reminisce about your pet chicken. This blog is a short assignment. I love these suggestions. Something that lets me write without having an editor/reader/publisher/marketer/publicist/accountant looking over my shoulder. It’s a reminder of what first prompted me to pick up a pen and start a story on a pad of foolscap. 

By today’s standards Bird by Bird is an old book, published in 1994, at a time when traditional houses ruled the publishing world. Even so, her non-business approach to writing– seeing it as an art form instead– is refreshing and affirming. If you are a writer struggling to get “it” right, I recommend you dip into Bird by Bird if only for the jokes.

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One True Thing

I am indebted to John J. Kelley at Writer Unboxed for the topic of this blog. He writes that, even in the most awful circumstances, words and stories matter. His post was published in November 2021 but it is even more true today as Russia makes war against Ukraine and all the values a free society holds dear.  As an antidote to the stream of despair that pours into our consciousness every day, he suggests we write “one true thing.” 

That truth can be from real life or from your story. The important thing is that it is true.  When I hear some of Russia’s claims I shake my head in disbelief that they could think anyone would believe them, but such is the propaganda machine. History teaches us over and over again that truth, which would seem incontrovertible, can be twisted and kneaded with clever words and dishonest intent. However the present conflict ends, history will show, once again, that truth is fragile.

I find it hard to think of anything as trivial as a romance while the world is locked in a war but I took Kelley’s words to heart and am writing one true thing in my journal every day. It soothes my soul to be able to state without equivocation that the scene outside my window is beautiful and uplifting to the spirit.

Other truths:
  • Humanity’s capacity for evil is being outmatched by our capacity for good. 
  • Compassion begets compassion. Money, goods and personnel are flowing into Ukraine. Neighbouring countries have opened their borders and their homes to refugees.
  • Courage begets courage. I truly believe the bravery of Ukraine’s leaders and its people have hardened the resolve of the Western world and reminded us of the values we hold inviolate.
  • I am of the generation that never knew war. Perhaps we didn’t prize peace as we should have.
  • A little boy, crying from exhaustion as he flees his home, breaks my heart. Economic sanctions feel remote in the face of his tears.
  • The human heart cannot sustain endless grief. We need stories to uplift and inspire as we do our best to help.

It is International Women’s Day as I write this post. To all the brave women of Ukraine, I salute you. I pray for you.

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