I owe Anne Lamott a co-writing credit for my new novel, The Death of Us.
Many of us do owe some allegiance to Lamott, I suspect. Bird by Bird is the book on writing craft most often recommended to me, and the one I recommend most often to others. It’s snarky and funny, real. Here’s a quote I’ve pulled to chortle over:
“My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they’ve outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that works. You are welcome to join the club.”
I have returned to this book again and again, sometimes to remind myself that I’m not alone, sometimes for the comfort, like curling up with a quilt, like talking to an old friend.
But this time, re-reading Bird by Bird for the seventh or eighth time—an educated guess, bolstered by Goodreads.com evidence—I discovered that re-reading well-worn writing craft advice could do more than comfort. It could accelerate my process, and make it more joyful.
During the pandemic, I had turned to re-reading, as many of us did: old middle-grade favorites like Charlotte’s Web and some adult favorites, too, like The Child Garden by Catriona McPherson and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.
I read new-to-me books, too. My favorite fiction discovery of the year was We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, a book about a girls’ lacrosse team that turns to witchcraft to win games. I picked up books I had owned for years and never got around to reading, like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and The Enchanted April. I haunted my TBR stacks and the e-books at my library and finally understood what everyone else probably already knew, that Samantha Irby is a comic genius, that Jenny Colgan romances can be literal medicine.
Yes, I read crime novels, too, but I was performing a down-to-the-studs rewrite of my historical novel, Death at Greenway. So I read widely, for inspiration and research, but also, for enjoyment, books that had nothing in common with what I was trying to do on the page. When Death at Greenway was (finally) done, I kept reading widely, for the joy of it alone. There was so little joy, do you remember? We had to grab delight where we could, until we got through.
(Not all of us got through. We have to remember that part.)
And then just as I needed to be planning my next writing project, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Drafting a novel became secondary to survival, of course. But then writing is part of our survival, isn’t it? The thing we cling to like a life raft, so that we remember who we are.
A new approach
Despite all this high talk of writing being raft-clinging, I have always had trouble getting started. Dealing with my health only made each day’s start even more hard going, just as I needed writing to be what it had always promised to be: an escape.
I picked up Bird by Bird.
I’m sure I chose it for the familiarity, for the comfort. I was in a second deep lockdown to preserve my immunity for going to medical visits. I probably could have used a therapist, but instead I turned to a friend I had on the shelf.
What I found as I read was if I absorbed a little bit of Anne Lamott’s voice, I got a particular feeling, a nearly physical itch, that signaled that I might like to put some words down myself. Not a feeling that I needed to write, or that I should, but that I wanted to, that I would enjoy it. I recognized that itchy little feeling, but would still let it sail on by.
One day, though, when that feeling came, I didn’t ignore it. I put the birds down, and I wrote. It was the easiest entry into a day’s writing that I had ever experienced. The next day, I did the same.
Which is how I came to finish re-reading Bird by Bird, day by day. I would read a chapter or two until that little tickle started up, and then swap out the book for my notebook or laptop. I could claim that I wrote the entire novel that way—except that I ran out of Lamott before I reached the end of my draft.
More friends, old and new
So I picked up another craft book, and kept going. I owe a co-writing credit to… quite a few authors.
But that’s the thing. I don’t.
When a writer offers advice, they’re not seeking credit. They’re honestly hoping, I think, to answer the question they get most, as teachers, as authors:
How do you do it?
It’s not an easy question to answer, even if it’s the question at the heart of all writing courses and texts. The question at the heart of Where do you get your ideas?
A lot of what makes the writing good and the writing life rewarding happens between the writer’s brain and the page, and it’s two-tenths absolute magic, something hard to itemize and turn into a checklist. It’s not impossible to teach writing, but difficult and, of course, whatever we say won’t work for everyone. A writer’s journey is individual. No advice I can think of is universal—
Except, the advice to write, even without knowing, without being quite sure. That’s all there is. The best and only thing we can do is to encourage beginning writers to get to the page and take a stab at their own work. Classes are great; craft books are wonderful. But none of it adds up to much, if the writer never gets the itch to create. Gets the itch and, importantly, heeds its call.
In the end, I wrote The Death of Us in about five months, the fastest draft I’ve ever managed, out of seven books. Part of that speed I have to credit to my inability to do, oh, anything else I might have wanted to do. The writing wasn’t just fast, though. It was fun.
And now as I start the next new thing, I’m primed to expect more fun. I look toward the bookshelf that holds all my craft books. So many. A tax write-off, you know. There are a few new friends to meet in there, as well as the old favorites, ready to offer new insights. What changes between the first read of a book and a re-read is me, what I bring to the pages.
And it has certainly been a verdant season of growth. The hardest parts of our lives always are.
A few suggestions for Bird by Bird-like companionship:
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
A little more woo woo than I usually enjoy, but joyful. “I believe that enjoying your work with all your heart is the only truly subversive position left to take as a creative person these days. It’s such a gangster move because hardly anybody dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist. So say it. Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.”
“The Get Away Car” in The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
This is one writer’s story, more than advice, but it still somehow manages to cut me to the bone at my own weakest point. Not putting writing first, Patchett admits, “kept me from ever having to come to terms with how good I was, or wasn’t. As long as something got in the way of writing, I could always look at a finished story and think it could have been a little bit better if only I hadn’t spent so much time on life’s pressing minutiae. How much better I never knew, because I never knew how much of myself I was holding back.” Ouch.
About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delaney
Lots of different pieces written over many years, but dotted with treasure. “Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind—vividly, forcefully.”
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
You will have to read the entirety of chapter three to begin go understand the excerpt, but trust me, it’s worth it. “Aim for the chopping block. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.”
On Writing by Stephen King
Part memoir, part nit-picking, classic King: “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
You have to get through some short stories by Russian masters, but there’s gold in the discussions afterward. “It’s kind of crazy but, in my experience, that’s the whole game: (1) becoming convinced that there is a voice inside you that really, really knows what it likes, and (2) getting better at hearing that voice and acting on its behalf.”
Where do you turn for your advice on the page? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page.
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar Award-nominated and Agatha, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark award-winning author of Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. Her latest book is The Death of Us (Harper Collins.) Lori lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing at Northwestern University. Her cancer journey is going well, thanks for asking. Visit her at www.LoriRaderDay.com.