Like so many writers Bobby Powers from The Writing Cooperative devours advice books from fellow writers. One of the best sources of advice he’s found is Anne Lamott… Support our news coverage by subscribing to our Kindle Nation Daily Digest. Joining is free right now!
Lamott is the type of writer who is easy to love and hard to emulate. She has written countless successful fiction and nonfiction books across topics as diverse as depression, faith, motherhood, and alcoholism.
Lamott is also the author of the writing advice book Bird by Bird, which is a wellspring of knowledge for writers across all genres.
Below are the top 5 lessons I learned from Bird by Bird.
1. Every life event is source material for your writing.
“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.” -Anne Lamott
I’ve seen this happen in my own life. When I started writing, I worried I would burn through all of my potential topics and be left with nothing else to write.
I was wrong.
Writing is like dipping your bucket into a well that gets more full with each bucketful you draw. There is an endless number of topics to write about. Once you start writing, you begin to see potential stories all around you.
2. Good writers help us understand life.
“This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of — please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds.” -Anne Lamott
I recently heard a segment on NPR about comedian Brian Regan. The segment talked about how comedians have a gift for finding the humorous within the mundane. Comedians see the joke hidden within every ordinary life situation.
Brian Regan sees the humor of Little Leaguers wanting the game-ending snack (snow cones) more than they actually want to play in the game.
Jerry Seinfeld sees the humor in the fact that, according to most studies, people are more fearful of giving a eulogy (public speaking) than being in the casket.
Similar to comedians, good writers help their audiences see the world in a new way. They expose feelings and ideas that have always been there, under the surface, within their readers. Good writers help us understand life.
3. Write what you’ve been told not to write.
“We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must (open the door)…You can’t do this without discovering your own true voice, and you can’t find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder. They are probably the ones who told you not to open that door in the first place. You can tell if they’re there because a small voice will say, ‘Oh, whoops, don’t say that, that’s a secret,’ or ‘That’s a bad word,’ or ‘Don’t tell anyone you jack off. They’ll all start doing it.’ So you have to breathe or pray or do therapy to send them away. Write as if your parents are dead.” -Anne Lamott
I’ll admit, I cringed typing the above words into this story, and these are not even my own words! Why? Because I know my parents read my work.
Nonetheless, this is a necessary lesson for each of us writers to learn.
We must bring our unvarnished selves to the blank page and speak the truth.
We must not cower under the weight of criticizing eyes.
We must write what we know we must write.
4. Publishing isn’t the payoff.
“I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part.” -Anne Lamott
It’s easy to get caught up in the output: publication, curation, stats, money, etc. But the output is not the payoff. The input is the payoff.
I often struggle to remember this when I write a piece I’m really proud of and it doesn’t perform well.
I also struggle to remember that output is not the payoff when I write a piece that generates tons of reads, comments, and claps.
Both sides of the coin — obscurity and success — blind us from the real reason we should be writing: to create something real, something tangible, something that breathes life into us and makes us proud.
5. Writing is a paradoxical act that weds self-doubt and ego.
“So I tell [my students] what it will be like for me at the desk the next morning when I sit down to work, with a few ideas and a lot of blank paper, with hideous conceit and low self-esteem in equal measure, fingers poised on the keyboard.” -Anne Lamott
It took me a long time to realize that writing is inherently an ego-driven activity. It takes massive cojones to think we have something to say that is worth another person’s reading time.
And yet, writing is also an act of extreme self-doubt. Every time I submit a story to a publication, I question whether it will prove worthy of acceptance.
In this way, writing is one of the most paradoxical acts we can perform.
Good writing is a strange cocktail of ego and self-doubt.
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