“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” writes Anne Lamott in her highly acclaimed book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (93). I first read this book more than 20 years ago in the only college writing class I’ve ever taken—and I hated everything she had to say. Lamott wrote about self-doubt, addiction, jealousy, hopelessness, and despair. None of these things applied to me. At the time it was published in 1995, Lamott was in her early 40s; I was in my mid-20s. I had just sold my first professional magazine story. Perfectionism was a tool I used to make my work shine. It wasn’t until my writing career plummeted and my personal life shattered that I returned to this book, seeking wisdom from a woman who has known self-doubt, addiction, jealousy, hopelessness, and despair.
Her words helped me rediscover my own voice during adversity and I returned to this book over the years passed. I’ve used it as a resource for teaching writing and I’ve also used it during times when I needed a push to continue with my own work. As a writer constantly searching for ways to improve my work, I’ve read numerous craft books on writing, but Lamott’s book is the only one I return to over and over again. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life offers practical wisdom for writers with an emphasis on some of the things that matter most: short assignments, shitty first drafts, and self-discovery.
One of the most important things to take away from the advice in this book is on breaking your work down into short assignments. It is something my students have found useful as a tool and it is a technique I use frequently in my own writing. The title of Lamott’s book comes from an experience she observed while growing up. The memory she recounts is when her ten-year-old brother was panicked into inaction when he finally sat down to write a report on birds he’d put off for three months. It was due the next day. Their father, who also happened to be a writer, propelled him into motion. “…[He] put his arm around my brother’s shoulder,” she recalls, “and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’” (Lamott 19). This common piece of wisdom can be elusive, especially when tackling large and/or complex projects.
Although I was able to write magazine articles in one sitting, I soon discovered that fiction needed a different approach, especially when written in the longer forms. The desire to know everything before sitting down to write can be crippling. My stalling techniques are similar to hers, so I followed what worked for her and discovered that it worked for me to. If the writing is going well, I will stay in my chair until a scene or a chapter is complete.
If things aren’t running smoothly, I use Lamott’s one-inch picture frame technique to focus in on just one thing: a paragraph detailing setting, a section of backstory, a character study. Lamott claims that an entire novel can be written one paragraph at a time by focusing on short assignments: “L. Doctorow once said that ‘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.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard” (Lamott 18).
I agree. When I find myself floundering, wondering if being a writer was the worst possible decision I have made in my entire life, trying to decide what other choices I might have left in the life ahead of me, I take a breath—sit down and work on writing just one more sentence, just one more paragraph, just one more page. Those short assignments add up and inevitably I’m surprised when each story finally comes to an end.
There is always a sense of relief and accomplishment when a story or a project is finally finished, but it doesn’t take long before you realize that the first draft is only the beginning. There is a different sort of panic that sets in when you realize everything you’ve just put on the page is a jumbled mess: giant plot holes, inconsistent characterization, generic settings, stilted dialogue, information dumps. “Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it,” Lamott sympathizes. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts” (22).
I struggle with this every single time I sit down. There is the urge to polish each sentence, to listen to the lyricism of the words, to create a beautiful paragraph. However, it’s difficult to make any progress if you attempt to edit as you write. “The bottom line is that if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won’t be able to get very far if you don’t start trying to get over your perfectionism,” Lamott writes. “Perfectionism…will only drive you mad” (31).
It can be a difficult pursuit to move past the desire for perfection in order to put the story on the page in its raw and garbled state. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to discover the places where a story might have missed its mark or characters whose voices might never be heard if you don’t get the words on the page. When I find myself struggling, I remind myself that what I’m writing is a shitty first draft. It’s an act of forgiveness. The creative process is for the muse; it’s the time to wallow in emotion and discovery. The critic has her turn, but that comes later—much, much later.
Lamott says, “We write to expose the unexposed” (198). The only way to uncover these hidden truths is through the process of emotional exploration and self-discovery. As a writer who has experienced the fear of putting too much on the page, I can relate to Lamott’s assertions.
“If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive” (Lamott 226).
But the fear remains. What if the emotional center we expose, the sentimental truths aren’t of interest to anyone else? I believe this fear is universal, that’s why writing is a risky business. Writing becomes flat and generic without passion. We need to shine a light in the dark places, expose the hidden truths. “The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language you are writing,” writes Lamott. “Telling these truths is your job (103).
There is a plethora of craft books to choose from and many focus on the fundamentals: plot, character, dialogue, setting, and so forth. However, it is the rare gem that looks at the other aspects of living a creative life. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is one those gems. Lamott gives writers permission to take breaks, to “free yourself to begin filling up again” (178). She focuses on practice and progress through short assignments, she encourages forgiveness and exploration with shitty first drafts, and she inspires with the advice to expose the unexposed through self-discovery. The more I’ve lived, the more Lamott’s “instructions” make sense. Above all, she reminds writers that we are our own worst critic. There is a time to let it go in order to move forward with craft and life. “…[T]here will always be more you could do, but you have to remind yourself that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor” (Lamott 93).
Suggested Reading: Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor Books, 1994.