Information Sheet #102

10 October 1996


[Since the fall of 1967, when I taught my first English composition class at Washington State University, I have used several dozen composition/rhetoric texts.  With rare exceptions, my enthusiasm for these texts has been lukewarm at best--and certainly my students readily sensed this apathy.  Seldom did I feel that the undergraduates gained much from these ill-written, unbecoming books. While in recent years I have occasionally stumbled upon a text that both my students and I found digestible, no book on writing can match the positive responses stimulated by Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  Having now used the book in three classes, with over 35 students, I have had only one or two students unwilling to agree with the anonymous NY Times reviewer quoted on the back cover: “hilarious, helpful and provocative.” 

      Although Lamott’s advice was composed for older writers enamored by the dream of magically penning the great American novel, Lamott’s mixture of personal anecdotes with practical suggestions for handling “shitty first drafts” seems to resonate in the minds of college students, even those previously immune to the charms of composition, whether as readers or writers.  What follows are some passages from Bird by Bird that students in my Freshman Seminar most frequently chose for celebration in their journal responses.  --Bob Marrs]

“. . . thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day.  We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen tale close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.  Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.’” (pp. 18-19)

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.  It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.  I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.  The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”  (p. 28)

“Your day’s work might turn out to have been a mess.  So what?  Vonnegut said, ‘When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.’  So go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes.  Use up lots of paper.  Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend.  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.”  (p. 32)

“. . . if you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.”  (p. 87)

“There’s an old Mel Brooks routine, on the flip side of the ‘2,000-Year-Old Man,’ where the psychiatrist tells his patient, ‘Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.’  And when I first tell my students this, they look at me as if things have clearly begun to deteriorate.  But it is as important a concept in writing as it is in real life.

      It means, of course, that when you don’t know what to do . . . you get quiet and try to hear that still small voice inside.  It will tell you what to do.  The problem is that so many of us lost access to our broccoli when we were children.  When we listened to our intuition when we were small and then told the grown-ups what we believed to be true, we were often either corrected, ridiculed, or punished.  God forbid you should have your own opinions or perceptions--better to have head lice. . . .

      Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.  There will be many mistakes, many things to take out and others that need to be added.  You just aren’t always going to make the right decision.  My friend Terry says that when you need to make a decision, in your work or otherwise, and you don’t know what to do, just do one thing or the other, because the worst that can happen is that you will have made a terrible mistake. . . . Some of us tend to think that what we do and say and decide and write are cosmically important things.  But they’re not.  If you don’t know which way to bo, keep it simple.  Listen to your broccoli.  Maybe it will know what do.” (pp. 110-115)

“I need to bring up radio statio KFKD, or K-Fucked, here.  It is perhaps the single greatest obstacle to listening to your broccoli that exists for writers. . . . If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo.  Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is.  Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and one.  You might as well have heavy-metal music piped in through headphones while you’re trying to get your work

done. . . .

      The best way to get quiet, other than the combination of extensive therapy, Prozac, and a lobotomy, is first to notice that the station is on.  KFKD is on every single morning when I sit down at my desk.  So I sit for a moment and then say a small prayer--please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written.  Sometimes ritual quiets the racket.  Try it.  Any number of things may work for you--an altar, for instance, or votive candles, sage smudges, small-animal sacrifices, especially now that the Supreme Court has legalized them.  (I cut out the headline the day this news came out and taped it above the kitty’s water dish.)  Rituals are a good signal to your unconscious that it is time to kick in.”  (pp. 116-117)

“I taped Hillel’s line to the wall by my desk: ‘I get up.  I walk.  I fall down.  Meanwhile, I keep dancing.’  The way I dance is by writing.”  (pp. 129-130)

“I like to think that Henry James said his classic line, ‘A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,’ while looking for his glasses, and that they were on top of his head.  We have so much to remember these days.  So we make all these lists, filed with hope that they will remind us of all the important things to do and buy and mail, all the important calls we need to make, all the ideas we have for short stories or articles.  And yet by the time you get around to everything on any one list, you’re already behind on another.  Still, I believe in lists and I believe in taking notes, and I believe in index cards for doing both.” (p. 133)

“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.”  (p. 136)

“I always show my work to one of two people before sending a copy to my editor or agent.  I feel more secure and connected this way, and these two people get a lot of good work out of me.  They are like midwives; there are these stories and ideas and visions and memories and plots inside me, and only I can give birth to them.  Theoretically I could do it alone, but it sure makes it easier to have people helping.  I have girlfriends who had their babies through natural childbirth--no drugs, no spinal, no nothing--and they secretly think they had a more honest birth experience, but I think the epidural is right up there with the most important breakthroughs in the West, like the Salk polio vaccine and salad bars in supermarkets.  It’s an individual thing.  What works for me may not work for you.  But feedback from someone I’m close to gives me confidence, or at least it gives me time to improve.  Imagine that you are getting ready for a party and there is a person at your house who can check you out and assure you that you look wonderful or, conversely, that you actually do look a little tiny tiny tiny bit heavier than usual in this one particular dress or suit or that red makes you look just a bit like you have sarcoptic mange.  Of course you are disappointed, but then you are grateful that you are still in the privacy of your own home and there is time to change.”  (pp. 164-165)

“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it, and I don’t think you have time to waste on someone who does not respond to you with kindness and respect.  You don’t want to spend your time around people who make you hold your breath.  You can’t fill up when you’re holding your breath.  And writing is about filling up, filling up when you are empty, letting images and ideas and smells run down like water--just as writing is also about dealing with the emptiness.  The emptiness destroys enough writers without the help of some friend or spouse.”  (pp. 170-171)

“Toni Morrison said, ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else,’ and if you are no longer wracked or in bondage to a person or a way of life, tell your story.  Risk freeing someone else.  Not everyone will be glad that you did.  Members of your family and other critics may wish you had kept your secrets.  Oh, well, what are you going to do?  Get it all down.  Let it pour out of you onto the page.  Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft.  Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.”  (p. 193)

“We write to expose the unexposed.  If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must.  Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.  Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut.”  (p. 198)

“Maybe what you’ve written will help others, will be a small part of the solution.  You don’t even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse.  Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”  (pp. 235-236)

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.  They deepen and wide and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.  When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.  We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again.  It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea.  You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.” (p. 237)

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