On taking one paragraph at a time
Some wisdom gleaned from Anne Lamott – plus, a poll.
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Today I want to discuss the brilliant Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, which many of you will have read, but perhaps not everyone (I only discovered it this year). In particular I want to talk about one of my favourite chapters, which is called ‘Short Assignments’. Here’s an extract.
Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of—oh, say—say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.
Lamott continues like this, being very funny and relatable about the process, and then she explains that she keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk. She goes on:
It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor.
Her point is: the best way to get daunting work done is to break it down into very small jobs, and take them one at a time.
We all know this, but I still found it extremely cheering to have Anne Lamott remind me of it. Maybe I’m an especially gloomy person – I definitely know people who are a lot less pathetic about the writing process than I am – but for me there’s no getting around the fact that there’s a lot of despair involved, and the despair can easily grind me to a halt. I’ve tried to get around this by setting up a fake deadline situation (something I might write about another time), which forces me to at least make an attempt at hitting word-count goals each month. So the despair is standing in front of me trying to push me backwards, but at least the deadline is standing behind me resting a foot on my backside.
Still, sometimes I’m just sitting there and the goal is, say, 870 words ahead of me – and I have no idea what to do with the next 870 words. On those occasions, sometimes the easiest, most hand-holdy way to get there is to break it down into short assignments.
I go one step further than this. If it’s hard then I choose the most fun assignments to do first. I feel very free to spend some time writing two paragraphs from what might end up being chapter 3, just because I’ve got half an idea for a funny conversation the protagonist could have on the bus. Then I might write a bit from what could end up being chapter 17, just because I thought of two lines yesterday that might be good there.
It feels like chaos, and it is chaos, and I’m slightly dreading reading the whole thing back, but at least it helps me to keep moving. And at this point, actually, I have 50,000 words of chaos sitting in Scrivener, so it’s working.
I’d definitely recommend buying Bird by Bird – I can see at a glance how much I got out of it, because half the pages of my copy have the corners folded down. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear which bits helped you.
I’ll finish with an equally great quote from another Substacker, Mason Currey, who writes Subtle Maneuvers.
Keep setting small, manageable goals, and then savor the feeling of accomplishing them. If you’re not accomplishing them, set smaller goals! Writing requires a weird mix of cockiness and humility (or maybe debasement is the better word). You have to believe that you have this rare, precious gift and also treat yourself like an incompetent baby who gets an ice cream if he writes one sentence.
Ice creams all round!
The third In Writing Creative Hour happened on Sunday, and it was fabulous – thank you very much to everyone who came along. It was lovely to meet those of you who I hadn’t spoken to before, and great to hear about your short stories, novels, newsletters and unidentified-evolving-bits-of-writing.
Next week I’m going to take a break from Substack – for the first time since I launched in May, you won’t be hearing from me at all (perhaps a welcome break for you too). I’ll be back with another newsletter on Thursday 20 October, and the next Creative Hour will be on Sunday 30 October.
For paid subscribers, so far I’ve been sending out fortnightly writing prompts (every other Sunday), and once every six weeks or so I’ve held an In Writing Creative Hour on a Sunday morning instead of sending a prompt. (A Creative Hour is a face-to-face event on Google Meet, where we have a chat and then do some quiet writing together).
I’m thinking about stopping the prompts – or pausing them for now, at least – in favour of more frequent Creative Hours. I’d love to know what you think about this. Would you miss the prompts or do you like the get-togethers more? Let me know in the poll below, and leave a comment if there’s more you’d like to tell me. If you’re not currently a paying subscriber, but would consider paying, do let me know what would make the difference.
Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, don’t forget to come and say hello here:
That’s all for now. I’ll be back in touch in two weeks – good luck with your writing until then!