When I was 19 years old, I was standing in the foyer of my grandmother’s house when my dad called me over. He patted the seat next to him on the couch, placed his hand on mine, and asked, “What’s wrong?” in the kind of concerned way only a father can. Confused, I explained nothing was wrong, to which he replied, “You’re pacing.”
To be honest, I hadn’t even realized I was pacing back and forth until he pointed it out. But once he did, I simply told him, “Oh, nothing’s wrong. I’m writing a poem.” The inspiration hit all of a sudden and I guess the pacing was helping me get all the words down. So I returned to my pacing, finished the last line of my poem, and went about my day. When inspiration hits, there’s no stopping a writer.
If only it were always that easy.
I’m not sure I can fully explain why I wanted to be a writer from such a young age. I know I loved to read, and that played a part in it. Many people say they become writers simply because they love to write, but looking back on the times in my life when I was consistently writing, whether personally or professionally, I can’t say I always loved the experience. There was definitely something about the way I felt while I was writing. It was cathartic. It helped me through some of my most difficult times. There were some times I wrote something for fun, but mostly, I remember thinking how writing was hard.
The level of difficulty made it almost painful at times. I spent many hours staring at a blank page, wondering why it was so hard. Shouldn’t words just flow naturally all the time? I thought this might be an indication that I wasn’t really meant to be a writer. At least until many years ago, when I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
I think Bird by Bird was the first book on the craft that I read all the way through, and it’s the kind of book I like to pick up again and again. I don’t love this book necessarily because it gives me practical writing advice, even though she does offer some practical advice. I love it because for the first time, it made me realize I wasn’t alone in how I felt about writing and myself. When I read Bird by Bird, relief washed over me and I thought, “Oh, it’s not just me who feels that way.”
The chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts” changed my perspective so much that I used to read an excerpt from it to my English students every year (although they were in middle school, so I changed the title of the chapter, of course.) It would be easy to think I was meant to be a writer if every moment spent in front of my computer or with a notebook in hand felt like the day I was writing that poem. Pacing back and forth, the words flowing easily. But the reality is, those moments are few and far between.
With her elegant words, Anne Lamott reassures us:
“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”
What a relief it was to realize that even the writers I admired most didn’t sit at their desk every day feeling magical and knowing exactly what to do. Writing is hard work, even if you love the work.
Throughout the book, Anne Lamott teaches us about the importance of short assignments and paying attention as a writer. She assures us that being published isn’t going to fix your life the way you might think it will, and that no one can tell your story in the same way you would.
She clearly expresses one of the most challenging parts of being a writer when she says:
“If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work.”
She talks about the realities of being a writer and a published author, while still encouraging you to keep writing for reasons other than fame and fortune. She clearly expresses that becoming a published author likely won’t bring you fame or fortune, anyways. She’s as honest as she can be about the craft of writing without completely breaking the spirit of the reader. It’s like medicine, in a way—her advice isn’t always fun to take, but it allows you to rid yourself of any false expectations so that you can focus on being a better writer.
Above all, she encourages us to take it, “bird by bird,” even on the difficult days. Even on the days when we feel we have nothing to say. Writing is hard sometimes, but we’re just going to have to keep going.