“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.” Anne Lamott
“How I wrote today: slowly, painstakingly, hopelessly, jerky-jerkily w/ equal proportions of commitment to the material, and self-loathing.” Anne Lamott
Once again, Anne Lamott tweets words of wisdom. (Seriously, guys, go follow her on Twitter). This made me stop and think, though, because I think the desire to be remembered underlies a lot of my writing (or has in the past, at least).
I used to journal a lot, and I think I always had this idea that after I died people would go through my papers and “discover” me and I’d end up being the next Emily Dickinson. Now I wish I’d written more in my journal while I was in college, not so much because I think every word from my mechanical pencil will be gold someday, but because I’d like to have those memories in writing for myself.
I don’t think wanting to be remembered is such an awful motivation, (if it actually gets us to write) but the truth is that we probably won’t be. We can’t all be Shakespeare. But does that mean the things we have to say are any less important? Not necessarily.
If we truly have “a voice, a gift, a nagging inside … that says ‘Tell it,'” the words we write will be important. Even if we don’t end up in the classic literary canon, there’s a chance that someone, somewhere, will read what we’ve written and think, “I’ve been there. This writer captures that experience that way I wish I could.”Somewhere, a reader may become so immersed in a world we’ve created that it’s hard to come up for air. (The internet makes this more likely than ever).
But even if no one else reads a single word we write, it is still worth writing, because writing gives us a way to remember ourselves as we once were and to envision what we might be. Writing gives us the chance to articulate our thoughts in new ways, and in so doing to give birth to new thoughts.
If we write solely to be remembered, our writing has the potential to become pretentious or fake. But if we write because we want to remember ourselves, to remember what it is to be alive at this moment, to see what we’re seeing and feel what we’re feeling, or if we write to imagine what life is for someone else or to tell a story that needs to be told, then we will never have a reason to stop writing.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should follow Anne Lamott on Twitter.
Also, I found a great Google poem completely by accident when I was trying to Google something just now, so I will share it with you:
How long will I love you
How long will I live
How long will Windows 7 be supported
How long will my money last
How long will diarrhea last
How long will the cherry blossoms last
How long will Vista be supposrted
How long will it take to lose weight
How long will it take to get to Mars?
True confession: I originally got Twitter so that I could follow the characters from the Lizzy Bennet Diaries. To this day, most of my interactions are with characters from literary vlogs, not actual people. (I’m ashamed to tell you how excited I was when Gilbert Blythe from Green Gables Fables responded to one of my tweets).
BUT I also discovered that there are plenty of real people worth following, especially if you’re a writer or a reader. (My suggestion: go follow Anne Lamott, Shannon Hale, and Maureen Johnson). There are also accounts based around writers from the past which tweet profound or famous words from a particular author. (I like @CSLewisDaily).
There are also accounts which create internet-based poetry. Maybe that’s not the best term, but I don’t know what else to call it. My favorite is Google Poetics, which tweets “Google poetry”: the automatic suggestions that appear when you start to type a word or phrase into the Google search box. One of my friends and I literally spent an entire evening creating our own Google poems.
Another internet-based form of poetry you can follow on Twitter is the Pentametron. It re-tweets random tweets from other twitter users to form couplets in iambic pentameter.
I’m going to end this post with some wisdom about writing I learned from various writers on Twitter.
“Don’t write what you know . . . that is boring! Write what fascinates you, and by the end, you will know it.”Shannon Hale
“We talk about craft. Well, seacraft, aircraft, spacecraft — craft is supposed to carry you somewhere.” Paula Meehan
“Here’s what writing is: going over and over the same sentences and phrases, until they are not as bad and fraudulent as they were before.” Anne Lamott
“All you really need to do to be a writer is to write, read and rewrite. And go out into your life and live it. That’s about it.” Patrick Ness
“Fear of disappointing others is possibly the worst toxin that writers–or anyone–can deal with.” Mette Ivie Harrison
An important part of being a writer is being observant. Writers constantly take in details through their senses–sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch–and put them back out again. These observations are a writer’s raw material.
You can’t expect to describe something in a compelling way if you fail to pay attention to the world around you. This is true for all genres of writing, but I tend to notice the effect most strongly when I am writing poetry, because poetry is often composed of distilled observations.
Through the very act of going out in the world prepared to observe and remember, writers can increase their receptiveness to the world around them. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott notes that she always carries index card with her to write down her observations and insights:
“I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a few words to remind me of it.”
Like Lamott, I find that when I prepare myself to observe and remember I am often pleasantly surprised. The act of attention is one of the greatest gifts writing has given me, I think. There are moments when it produces a strange sense of doubleness, as I focus on a meaningful experience but also on the sensory details and physical sensations it produces.
This can be disconcerting, but the alternative–to shut off the part of me that sees and remembers, the part that is attuned to my surroundings and seeks to find words for my experiences–would be like suffocating a part of my own brain.
It’s too easy as we go through life to fall into routine and stop paying attention to the world around us. Writing forces us to cease absorbing details like a complacent sponge and actively work to take in, remember, and record our observations. How can we find meaning in our experiences if we let them pass us by?
Anne Lamott says that all you are able to offer as a writer is all you’ve noticed. That’s why it’s so important to be fully present. How would you want to observe the next person you meet if you knew beforehand that he or she would someday be your best friend or the love of your life? What details would you want to remember if you knew that today was a turning point in your life, and that nothing would ever be the same?
In your life’s story, you can’t know ahead of time which moments will be the ones that will change everything. You can only observe, and remember… and maybe some day you will see how to fit these details into a larger narrative, whether it is your own or one of a character you’ve created.
Revision is an integral part of the process. I still struggle with this stage, especially when I’ve written a draft that isn’t too terrible but isn’t what I would like. With this kind of writing, it can be difficult to know what to do next. Sometimes I get so accustomed to reading the words the way that I wrote them that I become unwilling to make radical changes, even when they are needed.
Anne Lamott says that much of writing is writing until you get to the idea or phrase or scene that rings true. However, much of the time you have to write several pages of shitty first draft to get to that point. I identify with the idea of writing as a process of discovery. Many times, I start writing not knowing what I want to write, and the process of writing teaches me. Through writing, ideas emerge that I might never have had access to otherwise. The problem then becomes eliminating the sentences, paragraphs, or pages that no longer fit with these new ideas but which I had to write in order to arrive at my final concepts.
Knowing the difference between the parts of your writing that ring true and the parts that you had to write to get to the writing that works is an important part of revising. Anne Lamott uses the image of a game of pick-up sticks. You start by removing the sticks that seem loose and don’t really touch the others. This applies to your writing as well. You start by cutting the parts of writing that you can easily take out.
Lamott says, “I take out the easy stuff, stuff that obviously doesn’t go there, stuff that I needed to write to get to the stuff that I wanted. It’s a matter of finding the shape of it, and taking out the stuff that isn’t part of the vision.” In this view, revising is like pruning out the unneeded material. Not only does pruning involve cutting off dead branches, it also involves trimming off seemingly healthy ones in order to get the plant to grow in the proper shape or to force the plant to grow back thicker and stronger.
Not only do you want to cut out the words, images, and ideas which are dead, you also need to cut out the material that isn’t working because you are trying too hard to be clever. Anne Lamott notes, “All the stuff that you thought was so fascinating, so interesting, so charming that you love it to pieces—it sticks out like a sore thumb.” Taking out words and phrases that you love can be the most difficult part of revising, but you have to be willing to kill your darlings. I’m not sure who first said this often-quoted piece of advice, but Lamott is among the number of writers who will tell it to you.
Sometimes your work needs major, major revision. It’s not just killing your darlings, it’s taking their bodies and cutting them apart and trying to put them back together in a way that brings life. This sounds like a task reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein, but sometimes it needs to be done. In Bird by Bird, Lamott relates her revision process for her second book. After her editor read the complete manuscript, he told her that while the book had wonderful characters, it never got around to really saying anything. It was difficult for Lamott to hear this, but once she was able to look at her manuscript again, she saw the potential in it:
“One morning I took my three-hundred-page manuscript and began to lay it down on the floor, section by section. … There were sections up front that clearly belonged in the middle, there were scenes in the last fifty pages that would be wonderful near the beginning …. Then, when I was sure, I stacked up all the pages in their new order and set about writing a third draft.” (Bird by Bird)
Revision (especially dramatic revision) can’t always be done on a computer screen. Lamott recommends printing everything out. “Send money to the Sierra Club if that makes you feel better,” she says. There is something about seeing your work in front of you in a concrete way that can help you re-conceptualize it. And while the revision process can be painful, it is absolutely necessary to help your writing be the best it can be.
These are some great writing prompts! Also, number two is from Anne Lamott. Win!
Mired in bloggers’ block? Pshaw — we’ll give you a push! Here are five posts you can publish right now, no matter what topics you usually blog about.
1. The last thing that made you mad.
There are two great things about addressing issues that make you angry: first, the posts tend to be fun to write (not to mention cathartic). Second, the internet loves a good rant.
Think about the last thing that really made your blood boil, and take it from there. You can write about why it was so upsetting, explain how you found a solution, propose changes to keep it from happening again, or freeze-frame your emotions in verse.
(If you’re worried about letting it all hang out, check out our tips for writing rants without sounding like a big jerk.)
2. Your typical childhood lunch.
No really; stay with me.
In her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird
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“Writing is hard… I don’t sit down at the desk and say to myself, ‘I’m confident in this material.’ I sit down and get up, sit down and get up again. There’s this internal monologue going on in my head. That’s what it’s like for everyone. You just gotta do it.” From a speech given by Anne Lamott.
One of the scariest parts of writing (for me at least) is being vulnerable. There are two dimensions to vulnerability: being vulnerable in your writing and being vulnerable when showing your writing to others.
It’s so important to be honest when you write, but sometimes writing with this kind of vulnerability feels like you’re peeling your skin off. This is especially true of genres such as memoir and poetry. Even if you’re writing fiction, your writing needs to be honest to human experience.
Vulnerability can also involve taking risks in form, style, or content. When you invite uncertainty in your writing, this allows space for surprise and growth. If you never try anything new or take any risks, your writing may become stale or rigid.
Once you’ve created a finished piece, sharing it with other people involves another type of vulnerability. According to the dictionary, when something is vulnerable it can be wounded or hurt. That’s true of most writers’ feelings when they allow others to read their writing. There is always the possibility of being wounded or hurt when other people don’t understand your writing or reject what you are trying to do.
Submitting work for publication involves an even deeper level of vulnerability. You have to be willing to allow someone else to read your work and judge its suitability, and with this comes rejection. Even the most successful writers experience rejection. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your work is bad; it may simply be a poor fit for the place you’ve submitted it.
Knowing all this doesn’t make rejection easy. Anne Lamott says that as writers we need to be willing to expose ourselves, but knowing that we need to be vulnerable is different than actually achieving this in our writing and in our willingness to share our writing with others. I’ve determined to cultivate this quality in my writing; that’s one of the things that this writing conference has inspired me to do.
There will probably be many more conference-inspired posts in the near future. I feel like I’ve learned so much and been encouraged in so many ways. Keep writing!