“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it.”
I fell in love with the wondrous writer and teacher Anne Lamott a virtual lifetime ago, thanks to a dear friend of my mother. I was still single back then and the only writing I was doing was by definition epistolary in nature. Today letter writing is regrettably a lost art, but I still love and believe in it: I would much rather write you a letter, but this post will have to do instead. Speaking of this post, it is in fact is a prime example of why letter writing is now a lost art in the first place. With the advent of social media and an ability to reach numbers of readers, sending out a message to just a single person does seem rather archaic. Despite my well meaning protests, I too have undeniably hopped onto that bandwagon.
I’ve penned many, many letters over the years. Most messages were an earnest expression of either new unbridled love or simmering hatred to boyfriends at either the beginning or end stages of relationships. Others were written to clearly delineate strong emotions I was feeling and had determined would better be read rather than heard, so that the recipient could really get my drift (plus as an added bonus, the reader would be unable to deliver any unwanted retorts). A few of my best letters were written over several years’ time to a lifelong friend of my mother named Pat. She had decided to go back to college well after her kids were adults themselves, and much our mutual surprise one day we found ourselves sitting in the same English Lit class at UC Berkeley during my sophomore year. As unconventional classmates, we became friends in our own right and bonded over our common declared major and love of books and writing.
Pat had initiated our frequent exchange of sealed and stamped envelopes back and forth, convincing me it was a great way to exercise the valuable writing skills we developed at Berkeley without a lot of effort or expense. One day, Pat’s letter arrived in a package along with a wrapped paperback book, not long after it was published. I opened it to discover Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I hadn’t yet heard of the author but was intrigued by the title, which I found a bit puzzling at first. Only later after reading through the book did I discover how clever and in truth, all-encompassing this title is. I absently began reading the first pages while standing at the kitchen counter and didn’t stop until hours later and from my sofa, I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. Predictably, by the end of the week I was at Rizzoli Books (now closed) in Santa Monica, picking up any other titles by Anne Lamott I could get my hands on.
Fast forward to earlier this month, when for the first time since college I attended a writing class conducted by Anne at Book Passage in Corte Madera. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Anne and her work, she grew up in Marin County and to date has written 18 books on varying topics from writing to motherhood to faith, in both fiction and non-fiction works (her newest, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, will be released this October). She’s a skillful communicator, painfully honest and uproariously funny in both her writing and in person, sharing the details of her life with such intimacy and truth that it’s unnervingly easy to relate to both her life’s triumphs and disappointments. Finding her work on bookseller’s shelves can be challenging, if not because categorizing her works appears to be a matter of personal interpretation: in one store her books are found alongside other authors in the Memoirs section, in others they sit in with those of the Spiritual/Religious section. Once I inadvertently discovered several in the Self Help aisle. I overheard other students on break during the writing class comment on this phenomenon. But wherever they do land, her books are filled with treasures of keen insight and wisdom to live by.
For 3 hours on a sunny Saturday Anne graciously enlightened and completely entertained the 100 or so students in the room that day with meaningful instruction, positive encouragement and hilarious stories. She explained that every single book you’ve read and loved started out, as she fondly calls it, as a shitty first draft. And that books truly evolve from just one memory, one paragraph, one story at a time. Anne told about teaching a writing class for kids in first and second grade and at the end, one of the boys piped up and said “Hey, you only taught us how to write one first bad page, not a book!” As if speaking to an adult she calmly replied, “That’s exactly the point: your book like all other books will happen one bad page at a time.”
Anne lamented to the class about what a bitch the act of writing actually is. People say they want to do it, but in the same breath confess they find they are simply too busy. I like every other writer can relate to this. It is sometimes almost impossible to call a time out, quiet the chattering mind and ponder what is there to write about. Then once you do grasp an idea, it seems unthinkable to wrangle yourself into a chair and jot out a few paragraphs about a memory or conversation that left an impression on you (especially now that summer is finally here). And then edit the work so it’s actually fit for human consumption? Boring and (precious) time consuming. This process feels quite like a story Anne shared about taking guitar lessons with her boyfriend Neal: at some point during class, they felt as if they were strung out on heroin and couldn’t get their fingers to do what they want them to do. She likens learning to write to learning to play guitar- note by note, chord by chord. A passage from Bird by Bird illustrates this approach perfectly:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds , immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
So when I find myself wondering why I invest so much into writing stuff that let’s face it, so few people read or care about, I reflect back on what Anne Lamott had to say about those feelings. How she reminded us that if we are supposed to be writing and don’t get back to it, it will break our hearts later and fill us with regret. How she suggested that when we feel ready to throw in the towel, to find solace in the words of the great author E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You never see further than the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I would also add that to me, finishing a piece of writing like this one often feels like finally falling asleep after hours of lying in bed wide awake. It takes forever, is often unintentionally thought provoking and sometimes frustrating, but the long-awaited result is deeply comforting and satisfying. Which is exactly why I can’t wait to do it all over again.
©2018 Lisa Ihnken All Rights Reserved, except where noted