By Margaret S. Hamilton
A friend contacted me the day before Anne Lamott’s on-line presentation, sponsored by Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, where Lamott has taught writing classes for thirty years. Would I like to join her? I paid the substantial admission fee and spent three fruitful hours listening to Lamott’s overview of Bird by Bird, a book I know well.
A video photographer filmed Lamott, who shared a couch with her two large dogs. She reviewed craft books she admires: Stephen King, On Writing; Walter Mosley, This Year You Write Your Novel; Abigail Thomas, Thinking About Memoir; and Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write. Lamott supplemented the discussion with a few truisms: no one, including your family, cares if you’re writing; stop making excuses about not having time to write; and a favorite Flannery O’Connor quote: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 1970).
Lamott used an example from one of her students, whose mother had punished him by holding his hands over the stove flames until they burned. She urged her student to create characters and a storyline using the scenario, mining his emotional memories about the incident to create a new, fictionalized truth. In addition, she urged writers to create likeable (not necessarily reliable) narrators and help the reader situate the action in time and space.
In addition to the “bird by bird” example she discusses in her writer’s manual, Lamott mentioned Doctorow’s comparison of writing to driving at night, only able to see what’s ahead in the headlights. Lamott described her “lily pad” method of plotting: make big circles on a piece of over-sized graph paper, and fill the circles with what you know, from the beginning to the end, each section of the book a different lily pad. Lamott writes in pencil so she can easily revise and update the circles. Otherwise, she usually doesn’t outline.
She praised Curtis Sittenfeld’s recent NYT article on writing short stories: (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/18/at-home/coronavirus-fiction-writing.html?searchResultPosition=2
in which Sittenfeld describes the process of making a commitment to write, deciding what to write, and settling down to write, with no distractions or excuses.
Lamott detailed her process of writing a novel in three drafts: the “spill your guts” first draft no one will see; the second, “adult” draft; and the third, “tooth by tooth” dental draft, when she examines every word, sentence, and paragraph. For her second novel, she put the entire manuscript on the floor and rearranged the order of scenes and chapters, adding placeholder sheets for new content, and then wrote a plot treatment, in a last desperate move to have it accepted for publication. She succeeded.
She reviewed Harry Guinness’s editing process, which he discussed in a recent NYT article:
Lamott mentioned that George Orwell mandated never using a twenty-five-cent word when a shorter, five cent word will do. Orwell disliked passive voice, claiming it gave writing an unintended aloofness.
Lamott starts her daily writing session with a prayer, “Help me get out of the way so I can write.” She has a SAVE file for prose she deletes but can’t bear to part with, and when not at her desk, always has a folded file card and pen in her pocket to record ideas and observations. She relishes a memorable quote she salvaged from her job at a beer joint and refused to allow a copy editor to change:
“I’m going to have to pay you in like total dimes.” (Joe Jones, 1985).
Lamott reviewed Alice Adams’s dictum for writing short stories, which she uses for her lily pad charts:
D development; something bad happens
She adds: start in the story, don’t force humor, and use sensory details. Study old movies and learn how to portray the passage of time (flipping calendar pages, or clouds scudding across the sky).
Lamott listed her favorite novels, which provide inspiration and serve as models for writers. Colwin’s and Hanff’s books are both on my top ten list.
Mrs. Bridge, Evan Connell
Alice Munro’s books
Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (multiple POV)
Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Fay Green
Happy All the Time, Laurie Colwin
A Woman of Independent Means, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey (epistolary, or novel structured as letters)
84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff (love letters about literature and London)
I attended Anne Lamott’s Cincinnati event in 2018 during her Almost Everything book tour. Her recent Book Passage workshop video was an eloquent distillation of her thirty years of teaching writing to children and adults. In addition to an overview of Bird by Bird, she discussed how she manages her writing process, with many suggestions for new and experienced writers.
Readers, have you read Anne Lamott’s books?
Writers, have you read Bird by Bird or another book which has helped you with the writing process?