“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.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
The thing was, I thought I might never write again. This was a month ago. I was all but defeated and I lost my faith, not because of the writer’s block or the endless rejections or because I was not published. I lost my heart because I was published. It was the publication process specifically. That cold, reality that hits you like a cancer diagnosis.
It sets in about a month after the book hits the shelf. There are a few reviews, a handful of readings and some brief mentions in the press. And then suddenly it stops. It gets very quiet. Bookstores don’t let you read because you “don’t draw”. Your publisher doesn’t want to allocate any marketing dollars because you’ve not “caught fire”, and you are told by your peers and your agent and your editor alike that the success of your book is on your shoulders now.
It’s just not enough to struggle for years to create something real and true and from your heart. It’s not enough to endure the process of finding an agent, of selling a novel, of preparing it for publication. That trail of tears is only the beginning. For when you arrive, the great rock that is your heart’s creation rolls back down the mountain and you must become Sisyphus, and put your back into a new ascent.
So, about four months after the release of Serpent Box, I wanted to quit. I wanted to burn all my notebooks and drag all my unfinished stories into the recycle bin and hit empty, because why write? What is the purpose of writing, of signing with a big publisher, of spending thousands of my own dollars and hundreds of my own hours building websites and book trailers and blogging? How can I be a father, a husband, an employee, a promoter, a writer all at the same time? Where do I even begin? Well, I know what Anne Lamott would tell me. Bird by bird, she’d say. You take it bird by bird.
It was the first book I ever read on writing. A slim, pithy volume of anecdotes, aphorisms and instructions that gave me the courage and confidence to begin a whole new life. Bird by Bird was my gateway into the writing life, or perhaps I should say the writing mind. When I read it for the first time in 1997 I had written a total of two bad short stories. I was no writer. But that didn’t matter to Anne Lamott. There was a writer inside me, and somehow she knew this.
Bird by Bird helped me understand many things about writing that I felt intuitively yet could not articulate or confirm. The struggle of a writer. The daily commitment to the blank page. The trust in the subconscious. The faith that, through desire, persistence and a humble dedication to craft, something worthy of reading would emerge from your heart. Anne Lamott humanized writing and writers so that I could believe I could do it and be one.
I’m reading Bird by Bird again, for the first time in ten years because I’m suffering a new crisis of faith. I’m having trouble believing not just in me, but in writing itself. Why do it? To what end? The publishing industry and the book business is so awful. It’s a machine whose mechanisms work against those who provide the product that sustains it. The writer who seeks to create something different, something non-commercial, something with a little soul, is in for a shock. I tell you plain the business of books has sullied my heart.
So here I am, reading this book that I turned to so long ago for direction and answers, and what I’m discovering is just how much of Bird by Bird stuck, how so many of Anne’s words and ideas about writing and story not only made it to the pages of my own work, but into the fabric of my writer’s heart.
In order to be a writer you have to learn to be reverent.
Yes. We humble ourselves before the world, before the page. We ask for direction and clarity and courage, and we ask it in the manner of a supplicant before his God.
Writing involves seeing people suffer and finding some meaning therein.
You write through the pain toward the joy. If there is no meaning to this why live at all?
Hope is a revolutionary patience…American novels ought to have hope.
Hope for oneself. Hope for mankind. Hope. A transformative belief in goodness and in the meaning of what we see and feel. And that all things do in fact have significance and lead toward a better understanding of ourselves.
Good writing is about telling the truth.
My truth which is your truth because all truths are shared.
There is a door we all want to walk through and writing can help you find it and open it.
You don’t need Prozac and you don’t need the booze. You don’t need a therapist. Answers are found sometimes by asking questions and you don’t really need the answers anyway. Just the questions are often enough. Writing is asking questions.
Don’t pretend you know more about your characters than you do, because you don’t…Plot grows out of character…Don’t worry about plot, worry about character.
And worry I did. Never letting the story control me, but letting its people. I wrote my first novel by watching and listening to its people.
Plot is: what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn’t.
Every single one of my characters wound up doing things that on its surface, seemed crazy. But it all made sense in the end and of course it could not have happened any other way.
Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself.
And I had to become a master hypnotist. Look at me now. I’m doing it again. I am devising ways to convince myself that I am worthy of this very small gift, and that I am sane. And I have discovered that many of the tools and tricks I use to cajole myself to keep going were given to me by a woman I never met who sat down like I did and wrote something out of her heart as a gift to those who would follow her down that treacherous path a writer of good conscience must travel each and every day.
Bird by Bird. Little by little. One step at a time, one day at a time. You focus your attention on what is right in front of you, right there, the small things. The birds are the things we write about, which are the things we care about, the things we believe with all our heart. And those things don’t happen fast. They don’t happen without strain and effort and patience and time.
(The) truth is beyond our ability to capture in a few words…(and) there will need to be some sort of unfolding to contain it, and there will need to be layers. Bird by Bird
Our living is like this too. We stumble upon great truths by gathering small ones. If we observe closely, with the most sincere humility, the people and the places that claim our attention through their proximity alone, through their seemingly random placement in our paths, we begin to see ourselves reflected in them. For we are not separate from any thing or any one.
This flesh is but a memento, yet it tells the true. Ultimately every man’s path is every other’s. There are no separate journeys for there are no separate men to make them. All men are one and there is no other tale to tell. Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing.
Why in God’s name do I write?
I write to help me discover and pull back the layers. I write to assemble in one place a series of relevant truths and thus understand something greater. About the world. About myself. I write as a defense against fear and doubt and yes, anger at the ugly, unjust world, but also I write to express joy at that same world when it is beautiful and just. I write to create small order out of this great chaos, and to rise above, or perhaps filter out, the din of this mad living. I write to remember. I write to see. And I only share it with you, with other readers, because I so desperately seek communion with those who believe in the power of words to change and transform and unify the living and the dead. Words, which are birds. Birds which are tiny, fragile things encased in feathers, things that defy the forces that fix us to the spinning earth, that hold us down, that hold us back. Words are the crude ciphers of a heart bursting with joy and confusion, the visible proxies of sounds that are cries of exultation and pain.
So out of my despair has come a new hope that is really an old hope, the hope that through words and language and story I can change a tiny part of the world, and this is the hope that started me on my writing path in the beginning. Because writing, true writing, is not about being read or published or sold, it’s about discovery. I have discovered again why I write. By going back to Bird by Bird, by going back to the place where I first drew a cup from the well, I have realigned myself with what is important about writing as a means of communication and a way of looking at the world.
This is a letter of humble gratitude to Anne Lamott. Who gave me courage, who stoked my faith. And I would like to give you, Anne, the product you helped me to create. I hope to meet you so that I can place into your cupped hands my little collection of birds, my story about a boy in search of his faith, in search of his meaning. For he too is a gatherer of birds.
Causes Vincent Carrella Supports