Perhaps about a dozen years ago I took a writing class with APU professor Marsha Fowler. Marsha writes frequently – and very well. Approximately 10 faculty members split between the School of Theology and the School of Nursing met weekly to work on revisions of articles and to think and plan our academic writing. The class taught me a number of things – the importance of collegial support and encouragement in the writing process, the opportunity to partner on writing projects with people you might not normally work as closely with (in our case, the nursing and the theology faculty members), and the wisdom in reading at least one or two books on writing each year – no matter how published one becomes.
In this vein, I had a recent discussion with my colleague Rob Muthiah, and we compared notes on some good books on writing. This week, among the new book lists I am working on (to prepare everyone for fall classes!), I’ll share a few with you.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books/Random House, 1995) has been on bestseller lists for years and often makes it onto course syllabi or recommended reading lists at APU as well. There is good reason for this. Anne Lamott makes good writing “look” simple because she does it exceedingly well. Through storytelling, humor, and a fair amount of angst, Lamott writes about the writing process and the distractions that can beset us along the way. In her chapter on “Short Assignments,” she talks about taking a one-inch picture frame of the story we are attempting to tell:
“This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write 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. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car – just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her” (18).
I think this is typically part of my problem – I jump ahead and want to know what in the heck am I going to do with blind dog! Lamott instructs us to focus on one core detail, building paragraph by paragraph, and the writing then happens.
In her chapter on “Perfectionism,” she writes:
“…Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you
can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move” (28-29).
In the lovely movie “Shadowlands,” the comment is made that we read to know we are not alone, and I wonder if the writing process isn’t like this in some ways as well? Reading Anne Lamott’s book, even if I don’t think and react like her entirely, allows me to appreciate that the hard work it is (still) taking me to regularly write is a work shared by others who desire to write as well. My copy of Bird by Bird is well noted and dog-earred, with random slips of paper peeking out between the pages. If you are a writer who needs encouragement for the process, or someone who wants to understand more about the joys and the difficulties in writing, this is a good book to befriend you along the way.