August 1, 2008

When all else fails, read the manual

Filed under: misc,writing — Duchess @ 5:05 pm

I have been rereading recently Anne Lamott‘s 1994 book, Bird by Bird, subtitled “some instructions on writing and life”.  Except for Strunk and White’s classic (and very different) Elements of Style (my writing Bible since I was an undergraduate), this is the best book about practicing writing I know.  It is much more about how to get your head around doing it than teaching any technique or rules, but it is full of entertaining stories and good advice.

Early in the book Lamott discusses the fear we all have that the great idea we came up with daydreaming in bed turns out to seem really terrible when we face the blank screen or page.  And as soon as writers know for sure how very, very bad it is:

every form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout — the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the handwashing fixation, the Howard Hughes germ phobias.  And especially the paranoia.

Lamott likes to read to her classes a poem by Phillip Lopate, reminding them that they can either be “defeated and disoriented by all these feelings” (and I would add demoralised), or they can, like Lopate, use the feelings to shape their work:

We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the sake of the collective.

Sadly, it seems, most of her students don’t get the poem. Lamott tries to teach them to focus on writing, rather than publication.  Writing, she says, “can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.”

Then she tells another story, a propos of very little, but it is, nevertheless, like most of the stories in the book, quite good:

“My son, Sam, at three and a half, had these keys to a set of plastic handcuffs, and one morning he intentionally locked himself out of the house. I was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper when I heard him stick his plastic keys into the doorknob and try to open the door. Then I heard him say, ‘Oh, shit.’ My whole face widened, like the guy in Edvard Munch’s Scream.  After a moment I got up and opened the front door.

‘Honey,’ I said, ‘what’d you just say?’

‘I said, “Oh, shit,”‘ he said.

‘But, honey, that’s a naughty word.  Both of us have absolutely got to stop using it.  Okay?’

He hung his head for a moment, nodded, and said, ‘Okay, Mom.’ Then he leaned forward and said confidentially, ‘But can I tell you why I said “shit?”‘ I said, Okay, and he said, ‘Because of the fucking keys!'”

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