Author Anne Lamott on Writing and Life
A conversation based on my neon highlights in her book, ‘Bird by Bird’
Rarely is there a highlighter in my hand while reading. In fact, only two marked up books of my own doing immediately come to mind. It’s a kind of graffiti, defacing your own property; a practice saved for school textbooks and printouts. But exceptions were made for Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich and now Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
Every 10–15 pages, one or two bright yellow blocks appear. The selections portray a verbatim variety of witty, insightful, strong, and vulnerable musings from the author’s mind on the subjects of writing and life.
After finishing the book, a must-read for any aspiring author, I flipped the pages from thumb-to-thumb looking for those highlights. I wanted to write them all down, pull them off the pages to share.
So I did, connecting the quotations with my own musings in an interview style with the author. This is my conversation with Anne Lamott.
Brendan Marshall: Anne, let me start by saying that as someone who wants to one day write for a living, I found your book, Bird by Bird, extremely insightful. Your words and thoughts have helped to frame the magic trick of balancing consistent writing with the rest of life. You are so fortunate to have carved that path and generous to share so many lessons and experiences.
Anne Lamott: One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.
BM: And that mindset is something to carry with you, not to turn off and leave at the computer, notebook, or typewriter when you switch gears. It’s a form of daily practice, strengthening that mental writing muscle.
AL: “Do it every day for a while,” my father kept saying. “Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by rearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.”
BM: Your father was a writer. You grew up watching his struggles and successes, gleaning inspiration from his craft. Childhood sure is strange when we begin to understand who our parents are and what they do.
AL: Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.
BM: That is beautiful, and very true. Thank you for keeping us on topic. Writing from our memories — our perceptions — is half of the battle. The other half is new material, fiction or non-fiction, where paying close attention to life becomes so vital.
AL: There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it. Writing 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.
BM: So the writing urges paying attention, and in return paying attention urges writing. A writer envelops this cycle of creation with possibilities only as real and infinite as what he or she is able to sense, experience, imagine, and articulate.
But what about motivation? You could have content for months but still need to sit down and write excessively. How do you keep up the pace?
AL: What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you’ll get better. At times when you’re working, you’ll sit there feeling hung over and bored, and you may not be able to pull yourself up out of it that day. But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
BM: Now that we have you warmed up, let’s switch gears a bit. Can you talk to us about process? What is your bird’s eye view of creating a written work?
AL: E. L. Doctorow once 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.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.
BM: A sky-high view that comes down to just two or three feet in front of your face. In addition, a writer must be ready for a long haul — an arduous, messy, equally fun and frustrating ride to where the words are finally ready to see the light of day. I put an emphasis on messy, as life goes.
AL: What people somehow, inadvertently, I’m sure, forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.
BM: Our version of modern American society, whether pointing to education, family, or work, is designed to help young people find a clean and clear path to their ultimate destination in life. It isn’t like that, though, is it? And when it comes to writing, the mess is almost necessary — mandatory — to force authors to make sense of it all, to slowly mold their stories.
AL: Keep trying to move the story forward. There will be time later to render it in a smooth and seamless way. John Gardner wrote that the writer is creating a dream into which he or she invites the reader, and that the dream must be vivid and continuous.
BM: Dreams can be messy, too! There’s no limit to their scope inside of our own heads, just like writing. That is a very useful metaphor. The visions and images that I create while writing mimic those fleeting scenes from a dream.
Do any other comparisons come to mind?
AL: Let your human beings follow the music they hear, and let it take them where it will.
BM: Messy dreams and mesmerizing music — the makings of a dimly lit tavern where Jack Kerouak would have hung out in Lowell, Massachusetts back in the 50’s. A real beatnik joint where writing goes to marinate.
Continuing with our theme of process and creation, how do daily experiences craft something like dialogue? How do you listen to and stow away what you hear?
AL: You listen to how people really talk, and then learn little by little to take someone’s five-minute speech and make it one sentence, without losing anything. If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days — listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. You take home all you’ve taken in, all that you’ve overheard, and you turn it into gold. Or at least you try.
BM: Writing is an individual “sport,” isn’t it? We spend so much time at the desk hunting and pecking away, even more time with our noses in a book, then return to the world showered and clothed to experience people and places all over again.
AL: You must learn about people from people, not from what you read. Your reading should confirm what you’ve observed in the world.
BM: So, then, in your opinion, what is the main engine that drives such creativity? Is it a sense? Something tangible? Is it a feeling or something even more abstract?
AL: — the unconscious. This is where the creating is done.
BM: And what tools do you use to transport words and ideas from your unconscious mind to the empty page?
AL: Metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known. But they only work if they resonate in the heart of the writer.
BM: You are painting quite the picture here, Anne. In just a few minutes, we’ve touched on the senses — eyes, ears, and mouth; the unconscious mind; the heart; the skeleton moving from one place to another.
What about the underlying message, though? Does an author have a responsibility to act as a sort of moral compass for society at large?
AL: I’m not suggesting that you want to be an author who tells a story in order to teach a moral or deliver a message. If you have a message, as Samuel Goldwyn said, send a telegram. But we feel morally certain of some things, sure that we’re right, even while we know how often we’ve been wrong, and we need to communicate these things.
BM: And the writer has been “given” certain gifts, the ability to write and communicate in a specific way, which we wouldn’t want to go to waste.
AL: A writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.
BM: What about writer’s block and those occasional downtrodden days that lack the motivation and momentum to sit down and write? What can you tell readers about that?
AL: You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on the first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.
BM: As my father once told me, when it comes to both the urge to write and the act of writing, “it’s just there.” It is up to me, to us, to access and utilize the space. That has stuck with me all these years — something I turn to often, in good times and in bad. The inherent trait is a natural gift for some but that does not mean you can close your eyes and the work will appear in a *snap*. The writing mindset and ability is just the foundation, a tool. A professional writer has built their castle on top of it and finds ways to show it to the world.
AL: One of the things that happens when you give yourself permission to start writing is that you start thinking like a writer. You start seeing everything as material. And then, unbidden, seemingly out of nowhere, a thought or image arrives. Others will step out of the shadows like Boo Radley and make you catch your breath or take a step backward.
BM: Exactly! It’s not always obvious but ideas and characters can appear out of thin air, built by the confluence of experiences, conversations, long walks with the dog, and time for the senses to make some sense of it all. The challenge, then, is to make them interesting, to bring them to life with some spice!
AL: Life is lukewarm enough! Give us a little heat! If I’m going to read about a bunch of people who drive Volkswagens and seem to have mostly Volkswagen-sized problems, and the writer shows them driving around on top of the ice, I want a sense that there’s a lot of very, very cold water down below. I eventually want for someone to crash through.
BM: To lose their breath in the shock and awe of real, raw life, grasping desperately for air with images flashing before their eyes. The reader should feel the pain, angst, and discomfort and not be protected from it by some shield that the author puts up, consciously or not. Break through!
AL: I want people who write to crash or dive below the surface, where life is so cold and confusing and hard to see. I want writers to plunge through the holes — the holes we try to fill up with all the props. In those holes and in the spaces around them exist all sorts of possibility, including the chance to see who we are and to glimpse the mystery.
BM: The mystery. There is so much fear in the unknown, within ourselves and within the writing. But those two things are one in the same, right? The more we dig, the more we uncover. The more we give, the more we receive. It is a process that does not come without its periods of fear and trepidation.
AL: You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. And the giving is going to have to be its own reward.
BM: That brings us back full circle to solitude, the individual pursuit of writing as an act and, as you say, as a reward. It started way back with learning to read and write, falling in love with classics or some book “that started it all” until one day sitting down to create our own written works.
AL: You wouldn’t be a writer if reading hadn’t enriched your soul more than other pursuits.
BM: In the end, reading and writing are truly labors of love. You say that giving is in a sense the reward — a very altruistic way of looking at the craft. But what about publication? Is seeing your name on the cover or other byline a reward, or do we leave ego out of this?
AL: The fact of publication is the acknowledgment from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you’re a published writer, and you are in that rare position of getting to make a living, such as it is, doing what you love best. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy.
BM: The long cycle of thinking, observing, conversing, thinking some more, outlining, imagining characters, connecting plot, conceiving twists, finally writing, going back to the drawing board, writing some more — repeated ad nauseum to the bittersweet end. But, as you’ve made clear, if you love it, there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing. It all boils down to the writing.
AL: Sometime later you’ll find yourself at work on, maybe really into, another book, and once again you figure out that the real payoff is the writing itself, that a day when you have gotten your work done is a good day, that total dedication is the point.
BM: Total dedication — a concept perhaps easy to imagine, and terribly difficult to master. But the best to ever put their names on something, those who go down in history for the tales that they tell, did not arrive at that point without sincere hard work and dedication.
You’ve been more than generous with your time, Anne, so let’s wrap this up. An underlying theme to this entire conversation is authenticity. With all that is fake and insincere in the world, how does a writer cut through the nonsense and find the truth?
AL: Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act — truth is always subversive.
BM: The writer as a disrupter, a truth-teller, a muse, and a beacon of light in the darkness. It is a profession we are lucky to pursue, and for those who have caught the attention of enough readers to sustain a living, it is a profession that comes with an obligation to carry on.
AL: You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible.
BM: Any final thoughts for our readers?
AL: Don’t underestimate this gift of finding a place in the writing world: if you really work at describing creatively on paper the truth as you understand it, as you have experienced it, with the people or material who are in you, who are asking that you help them get written, you will come to a secret feeling of honor.
BM: Thank you, Anne. It has been a pleasure taking a glimpse inside the mind of such a prolific writer. I hope all who read this take something to use on their own journey.