Tag: Anne Lamott

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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The Most Important Element

“The most important element is passion.”

Those are the first words I heard when I turned on the radio this morning.  The announcer was speaking of music, but the same applies to all walks of life, whether it be career, sports, relationships or hobbies.  I’m watching The Brier (the national championship for men’s curling in Canada).  One of my favourite teams has had a poor year, losing many matches.  But they’ve got their old form back and are top of the standings now.  The difference?  Passion.  Even the broadcasters remark that the team is demonstrating the intensity that won them past championships.  They are exciting to watch.

 

Last week the clutter in my office reached the tipping point – literally. The pile on the desk tipped over into the pile on the chair which tipped into the pile on the floor.  I was trapped.  Unless I did some clearing out, I couldn’t get from the desk to the door.  It took a whole day and some tears as I sent old notes, cards and manuscripts to the recycle bin, but now when I walk to my desk, I’m energized by the clean surfaces and neatly stacked supplies. 

As part of the clear out, I examined old workshop notes. That brought a few tears too.  I remembered my naïve self heading off to those classes convinced I would learn the “magic” element that would turn me into a prolific, best-selling author. I’d come home from each session invigorated, eager, feeling on the cusp of something wonderful.

Time passed. I’m not a best-seller.  Realism has overtaken passion. The manuscripts are more polished, better structured.  The characters are more rounded. The prose is clear and fluent.  So, I’ve learned much in my years of writing, but I’ve also lost some of the passion.

How to get it back?  

Last week I talked about learning something new. That’s a good step. 

Reading a good book is another. My tablet is full of new e-books, my bedside table has a stack of TBR titles, but so much of that reading feels like work. I’m studying my craft.  For a change of pace I returned to an old favourite.  Joy coloured my reading time. I remembered that, as an author, I wanted to give that kind of joy to my readers.  The passion is stirring.

Make new friends. There is nothing so wonderful as an old friend, but a new friend can stir up  the soul. It’s kind of like going out on a blind date. So much to discover.  Will she become a soul-mate or turn out to be a dud?  I don’t know, but the journey promises excitement.  I’ve joined the Pioneer Hearts group on facebook, where I’m meeting new people who share my passion for history.  I’m excited to chat with them.

In her iconic book on writing, bird by bird, Anne Lamott talks about the writing frame of mind. She points out that starting and abandoning numerous projects indicates a lack of passion for them.  She recommends that writers look to their core values and write from that place.  You probably aren’t even aware of your core values, they feel like universal truths that no one has ever not known.  But it is the job of the writer to explore those truths, to lay them out for the world to see, to dissect them and put them back together again.  A writer’s passion lies in telling her truth.

I’ve made a start on all of the above. Now, I’m going to do some of the exercises from those old workshops.  After all, in my office clean up I unearthed coloured pencils, index cards and a variety of charts. I’m already smiling in anticipation. The exercises won’t create passion in the work, but they may put me in the frame of mind where passion happens.

Anyone else like to share some tips on how to keep the passion alive in your writing when you feel jaded with the whole thing? Please share.

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Morning Pages – My Take

 Following on from last week’s thoughts on meditation, this week’s blog features another way of clearing static from the mind, morning pages.

Julia Cameron, in her seminal book for writers, The Artist’s Way, insists that morning pages –three long-hand pages of stream-of-consciousness writing — are essential to the creative process.  Her theory is that we purge ourselves of mind static by writing it all down on the morning pages and are then free to get on with our work of creativity.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, instructs her students to start with childhood memories in their quest to “tell the truth” in stories.

I try to combine these two pieces of advice in my writing exercises.  Yes, I do writing exercises.  Just like a pianist practices scales, every artist/performer must keep her tools in good working order.  In other words, practice.  Many of my writer friends consider morning pages a waste of time.  The thirty minutes spent spewing drivel — their words, not mine — could be better spent on the current work.  That may be true for some, but I find doing some exercises before getting into the real work of the day, makes that real work more enjoyable, more poetic and more “true.”  However, I do choose which exercise to practice.

If my vocabulary seems to have shrunk to the same ten verbs repeated over and over, I do a “beautiful words” exercise.  Some words resonate with me, perhaps not with you, but the morning pages are for the writer not the reader.  So, I’ll fill a page with words like lilacs, lady, lavender, lollygag, lamp, luggage, lily, lollapalooza . . .  It doesn’t really matter what the words are, I’m just opening my mind to the beauty of language and calling some of those buried syllables to the forefront.  When I’ve finished, I go to my WIP and the words, that have been laboured and blocked,  now flow joyfully.

Often I’ll use my morning pages to create emotion.  Here’s where the instruction to start with childhood memories is invaluable.  As adults we’ve learned to be civilized, to bite down on harsh words, to take a balanced approach.  As adults, we’ve learned to flat-line our emotions.  As children, we had no such constraints.  If we were happy, we were ecstatic, if we were angry, we were in a red-hot fury, if we were hurt our very souls wept with the pain.  If the scene in my story demands that my heroine be angry, I’ll do a writing exercise recalling a moment in childhood or the teenage years when I shook my fist in the face of my tormentor and shouted out my righteous rage.

To make these exercises effective for the story teller, they must go into detail.  Remember the room you were in when the event took place.  Describe it in every tiny detail.  Try to recall if there was music or bird song or the hum of a furnace.  What did it smell like?  What were you wearing?  In the morning pages, you want to go deep into your memory.  As well as putting you in the appropriate emotional state, the writing will put you into deep point-of-view as well.  The scene you write after this writing practice will be more “true” than any you made up out of your conscious mind.  Don’t worry about running out of material.  Flannery O’Connor   said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.

Morning pages can take the form of character interviews or a diary entry.  Here is where I explore my character, sound out her childhood memories, let her dream without constraint of money or time or circumstance.  When I put that character into the story, most of what I wrote in the morning pages will never make the published page, but the essence of what I wrote, forms the character and the more “true” that character is, the better the story.

Make up your own writing exercises.  Practice them.  See if it doesn’t make your writing – or painting, or sewing, or teaching or gardening – more satisfying.

If you haven’t read “he Artist’s Way, or Bird by Bird I highly recommend them.

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