There are some writing books I try to re-read on a regular basis, not because my poor overloaded brain forgets what’s in them (although it does), but because at each stage of my writing career, I get something subtly different out of
As I get more writing experience, I rack up examples that help me relate to the advice of more experienced writers.
The first time I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, I was a beginner writer who read chapter titles such as “Small Assignments”, “Shitty First Drafts”, and “False Starts” with a mixture of bewilderment and disconnection. I wanted to write a (critically acclaimed) book, not a “small assignment”. I saw my first drafts as finished products (they were in fact, spectacularly shitty). The idea of a “false start” didn’t make sense to me. I was still in that delusional/destructive “I’ve started so I’ll finish” mindset.
Now I’ve written countless articles, short stories and blog posts, I understand the value of building skills, confidence and funds through the “small assignment”.
Now I’ve learned detachment and editing skills I recognize my shitty first drafts as raw material to be shaped into a not-so-shitty second draft and ultimately a polished, professional and publishable fifth or sixth draft.
Now I’ve read Andre Kukla’s advice on the curse of persistence for the sake of persistence (in the excellent, easy-to-read Mental Traps) I no longer feel an obsessive need to finish everything I start. I realize that a false start (or two) can be just what we need to write our way through to the true start that is actually going to be the perfect introduction to a particular piece of writing.
Probably the most valuable message in this book for me right now, is the one contained in the title. Ms Lamott refers to how her father, himself a successful writer, advised her young brother to tackle a school project on birds that he had delayed until he was fast approaching the deadline for submission (sound familiar?) When it comes down to it, there’s only one way to write a school project on birds – bird by bird. And there’s really only one way to write anything. Word by word. Sentence by sentence. Paragraph by paragraph.
The more writing projects I take on (and I’m juggling a few right now), the more important it becomes to just sit down and write, one word at a time, one project at a time, finishing one (shitty) first draft before moving on to the next.
For me, this was a good week to re-read this book. Wherever you are in your writing career (and life) it might be a good week for you too.
To order Bird by Bird, or read more reviews, click here.
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