Fortunately, I found respite from this battle – well deserved R & R, to continue the metaphor – by thinking critically about, of all things, birds. I don’t mean I forged my own avian philosophy; rather, I allowed myself to be drawn into Anne Lamott’s. Actually, Lamott’s dad is the birder in her family, and his daughter appropriates wisdom he shares with her brother and passes it on to readers in the middle of her discourse on the writing life. It’s the kind of message Lamott consistently provides. She reflects her dad and tells us to write bird by bird. She explains the importance of SFD’s (you’ll have to read the book to decipher the acronym). She advocates surrounding ourselves with friends who also write, who will read what we write, who will tell us the truth about that writing, and who will commiserate with us when others – not our friends – share truths that hurt. She convinces us to see ourselves as writers, defining that more by the way we look at the world than by whether or not we’ve had anything published. She speaks our language, even using words we at the EKU Writing Project use often: trust the process. As we read, we learn of Lamott’s process and are encouraged to find our own.
Lamott writes to empower readers, who read what she writes because we are writers. The book distills years of her writing workshops, answering questions she’s been repeatedly asked, anticipating questions new writers undoubtedly ask. I had questions, and I discovered partway through the book that I could follow Lamott on twitter (@annelamott) and, if bold enough, ask. But as I worked my way through the book, she gave me answers.
I asked: can I be a writer if I haven’t published anything?
She answered: There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it. Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way…. Then she answers this question more later, when she says: Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems.
I asked: how can I find my focus?
She answered: all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. (And she shares with us E.L. Doctorow’s answer, too: writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.)
I asked (and I’ve asked many times): can I avoid dialogue, since I never seem to write conversations that really matter?
She answered: One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t.
I asked: what vision of the world should my writing reveal?
She answered: there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.
And I have asked, finally, again and again: why do we do this? Why do we write and why do we teach writing these days, when students resist it and the rest of the world does its best to not honor it at all?
And she answered, beautifully: this is another reason to write: people need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion – not to look around and say, “Look at yourselves, you idiots!,” but to say, “this is who we are.”
Anne Lamott gets who we are. She understands the writer, not just because she is one, though that’s a big part of it, but also because she’s carved out a life where she has been surrounded by them. Writers matter to her, because she sees how they matter. Her final message is thoughtful, direct, and triumphant: “You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clear the dinner dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.”
Yeah, that’s what we’re after as writers: we want to find ourselves, and, in doing so, hopefully we find something to say that somebody else might understand and, maybe, a way to see it that speaks to them. Writing is a respite, as we write and as we encounter the important thoughts of someone else who understands that writing matters.