Melia and I have a phrase that we use whenever we do something careless or irresponsible (this is obviously very rare): “Mom would never do this.” It’s a versatile, catch-all statement that is perfect for so many occasions, from missing flights to waiting until the last minute to start an important project. It’s the kind of shorthand that’s helpful when you work with your sister.
Our mom (a.k.a. Lil Laverne) is just very organized, detail-oriented and responsible. At a time when some of my friends are worrying about becoming their mothers, I’m a little worried that I’m not headed in that direction fast enough. Lil Laverne is also an excellent writer and editor who helped instill a love of reading and writing in both of us. I loved writing silly stories and plays when I was little, but somewhere around the wise old age of 9, I realized that writing was sometimes hard and not nearly as fun as playing Super Mario Bros. 3 (hey, whippersnappers, that game was the coolest back in my day).
Turns out, loving to write doesn’t mean that you actually love every minute of the writing process. It’s not fun at all sometimes. You have to trudge through the boring, tedious, irritating stuff before you get anywhere close to something good. And, as an ever-impatient person, I never felt like doing that. Whenever I had a paper or a book report or any other school writing project due when I was a kid, I would hem and haw and do everything but start writing the darn thing. I still have a tendency to do this, except now I’m a grown up and can’t whine to my mom about it.
I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this problem, so I’ve put together a short pep talk with advice my mom (or your mom or anyone’s mom) might give you in this situation.
You don’t know what you’re writing about until you put together a framework. The ideas in your head don’t count; get it down on paper and see what’s working and what needs attention.
You’re not getting anywhere by staring at a blank screen or page. Start with something, anything, from the beginning, middle or end (even if it’s terrible, you can always go back and fix it).
You might think your final draft is pure perfection, but you should always have someone else, preferably someone with a relentless red pen of doom, edit your work. An objective editor will see holes and errors that you miss (if you find mistakes in this post, it’s because I didn’t follow my own advice).
Starting early is a lot less stressful than cranking something out right before it’s due, and it gives you time to revise and improve your writing.
Flowery, pretty language is just fluff if you don’t have anything to say. Find the point you are trying to make and don’t get distracted by clever wordplay.
In short: stop whining; just suck it up and write it already. Except Mom would never say that.
What writing tips would you add to this list?
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Happy New Year, everyone! I hope January is treating you well, and your resolutions (if you were bold enough to make any) are still going strong.
I vowed to read or reread more books on writing this year—everything from Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style to Teressa Iezzi’s new media handbook The Idea Writers—for professional development and just plain enjoyment. When I’m busy with work and other commitments, curling up with a good book can feel selfish or indulgent, but I’m trying to shush that pesky guilt-trippy little voice in my head that tells me I should be doing more productive things. Reading is productive, and good writers are avid readers.
The first book on my list was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I couldn’t put it down; it is refreshingly honest, funny, self-deprecating and practical. Reading it felt as if I were sitting down for a long coffee date with an accomplished, witty, blunt and slightly neurotic writer who had generously agreed to mentor me.
It is such a relief to hear that respected, published writers like Anne (we’re pretty tight now, so I feel like we’re on a first-name basis) still experience everyday struggles—writer’s block, false starts, self-criticism, perfectionism and jealousy. Bird by Bird isn’t a rosy view of the writing process—she makes it clear that it is hard work that requires discipline and a thick skin—but it is, at its core, a testament to why she loves to write and encouragement for others who want to do the same.
I kept a pencil on hand while I read and found myself underlining and scribbling notes like a madwoman. Here are a few of my favorite quotes.
1. “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.’”
2. “One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”
3. “I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”
4. “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up.”
5. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life… Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California).”
6. “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.”
7. “Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”
8. “Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you.”
9. “So whenever I am leaving the house without my purse—in which there are actual note pads, let alone index cards—I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it.”
10. “You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander.”
Have you read Bird by Bird? What did you take away from it?