I’ve been interested in the craft of writing even since my high school newspaper teacher gave me On Writing Well by William Zinsser as a graduation gift. In the years since I’ve read and enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing, Derrick Jensen’s Walking On Water, and Steven Pressfield’s The War Of Art.
The latest addition to that list is Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. Here are a few of my favorites ideas from that book, shared in sketchnote form.
Turn Down Station KFKD
“If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.”
“The best way to get quiet, other than the combination of extensive therapy, Prozac, and a lobotomy, is first to notice that the station is on. KFKD is on every single morning when I sit down at my desk. So I sit for a moment and then say a small prayer—please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written.”
Though the concept of mindfulness is not new to me, I don’t think that I’ve ever heard it expressed in this way.
Often I think of mindfulness as a past, present, future thing. It’s helpful to learn from the past, but not to dwell on mistakes. It’s helpful to plan for the future, but not to live your life there (either in fantasy or in anxiety).
But I like Lamott’s angle on it, this one-side-overconfident, one-side-overcritical voice in your head. It’s helpful to recognize your strengths and play to them, but not to bathe yourself in glory. It’s helpful to recognize your weaknesses and mitigate them, but not to dwell on them to the point of apathy.
Better to find a way to quiet the mind, and then just get to work.
I Believe In Index Cards
“I’d stand there trying to see it, the way you try to remember a dream, where you squint and it’s right there on the tip of your psychic tongue but you can’t get it back. The image is gone. That is one of the worst feelings I can think of, to have had a wonderful moment or insight or vision or phrase, to know you had it, and then to lose it. So now I use index cards.”
“My index-card life is not efficient or well organized. Hostile, aggressive students insist on asking what I do with all my index cards. And all I can say is that I have them, I took notes on them, and the act of having written something down gives me a fifty-fifty shot at having it filed away now in my memory.”
I think what I like most about Lamott’s use of index card notes is how uninterested she is in an organization system. That 50/50 chance of remembering is good enough for her, and I appreciate that.
I’m curious if she still uses index cards, or if she now sues a smart phone for note-taking while out of the office. That’s what I rely on when I’m out and about – Evernote on my iPhone. But I do have a large stack of index cards in my office that I use.
I also like how Lamott emphasizes the shift that happens when you start to write your ideas down rather than just keeping them in your head.
The act of jotting down notes and observations means you are one step closer to actually doing something with them.
Shining A Light On The Darkness
“The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things.”
Giving attention to the darkness of our lives, though scary, seems particularly important at this point in time, when our most common form of connecting with others is through the filter of social media and the false reality that is presented through that filter.
I think we need writers to “dance around the rim of that abyss” and share with us what they find. And the more that that is shared (in a healthy, intentional way), the the more balanced our intake of information might be.
Interestingly, the topic of false positivity online came up recently on YouTube – first in this video by PewDiePie (the biggest YouTuber in the world), then this one by Casey Neistat (the undisputed champion of daily vlogging). As someone who experimented with daily vlogging a few times, I resonated with their thoughts.
Are you interested in writing, or simply in living a creative life? Then I highly recommend Lamott’s book. It’s one that I have no doubt I’ll be revisiting in the future.
Friday, January 20th, 2017