Bird by Bird

Thursday, March 5, 2009

I didn't sleep well at all last night, and I have a headache, so I'm struggling with today's entry a bit - and I'm not feeling the slightest bit interesting, funny, or creative. Now that I've gotten that moment of whining out of my system; we can now proceed to our regularly scheduled blog entry:

Today's book is sort of how-to book about writing. Here's the description from the back of the book; "Lamott's suggestion on the craft of fiction is down-to-earth: worry about the characters, not the plot. But she's even better on psychological questions. She has learned that writing is more rewarding than publication, but that even writing's rewards may not lead to contentment. As a former "Leona Helmsley of jealousy," she's come to will herself past pettiness and to fight writer's block by living "as if I am dying." She counsels writers to form support groups and wisely observes that, even if your audience is small, "to have written your version is an honorable thing."

I decided to read today's book because it was mentioned in yesterday's book-
I'm sort of playing literary dominoes here (spellcheck keeps insisting that dominoes is spelled with an e, but I think it looks very odd that way - but maybe that's just the headache talking) - and also because I have already read a book by Anne Lamott that I enjoyed (Operating Instruction). I'm always a little nervous when reading a book written by an author whose work I have previous enjoyed, because the second book is almost always a let down. This time was one of the rare exceptions - I liked it just as much as Operating Instructions.

If you're wondering where the title came from, here's an excerpt from the book that explains it: "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. It 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.'"

One of the first pieces of advice Anne Lamott gives to her writing student is to just sit down and start writing about childhood memories. Alright Anne, you twisted my arm, I'll write about something from my childhood - I mean after all it's been at least 24 hours since I've obsessively written about myself and my family, so clearly it's time to give it another try. - My most vivid childhood memory is from when I was about 5, and my mother was letting us build a fort from the living room couch. This probably seems like an odd thing to be so vividly remembered, and it probably would be if I had a different kind of mother - the kind of mother who is good at dealing with chaos and things out of order. But I don't have that kind of mother - I have kind of mother who only feels calm when the kitchen bar stools are pushed in at just the right angle, and who flips out if something is put on the beverage shelf in the refrigerator that isn't a beverage (is that even normal - do normal houses even have a beverage shelf - it feels normal to me now, but I suspect it isn't). And so letting us make an enormous mess in the living room probably tested the limits of her composure, but sometimes she would let us do it anyway, and she would stand there and smile even though the living room was trashed. That's my favorite Mom memory - not because building a fort was all the fun or interesting (although it was a very nice house/fort, complete with 2 stories, a basement, and a garage) but because she stepped outside of her comfort zone to make us happy - which is a very hard thing for a person who is only calm when everything is in order to do. Now I will share my favorite Dad memory. When I was about 6 years old I wanted to play to baseball (I'm not really sure why since I'm so far from athletically-inclined that I can barely even walk in a straight in line) - but the local baseball league wouldn't set aside the money to build a field and dugouts for the girls. So my Dad donated the supplies and built the field himself. He would come home from working 60 hours a week at the business he was trying to build, and go out there and lay the gravel, built the fence, and pour the cement for the dugouts - so that I could play.

While Lamott is advising to write about childhood memories, she talks about she advises those who are still struggling to write about childhood lunches. At first I balked at this advice, and thought I have nothing interesting to say on this subject. And then I remembered the napkin notes. I always loved watching my mother pack lunches because she was so methodical about it that it was sort of hypnotic - but I would always turn away before she put the last thing in the lunch box, the napkins. She would always write a note on the top napkin using a laundry marker, and I wanted to be surprised. I would always get excited right before I opened my lunch box, anxious to see what she has written on there that day. Some days she would write Have a Happy Day with giant happy faces and rainbow drawn in the corners, other days she would draw a giant stick person with huge tears falling down his/her face (her drawing abilities were so bad that it was never quite clear) and the words I MISS YOU in giant letters on the top. Or if it was close to Christmas she would draw a tree and present with a little countdown at the top (3 days until Christmas break, 7 days until Christmas). Some of my friends were liked the napkin notes so much that they pressured their parents into writing napkin notes too - but theirs never had stick people who cried giant tears so I still liked the ones that my Mom wrote the best.

Lamott's advice does seem to have generated a lot of stuff for me to write about - all of it sappy and sentimental - but, still, the advice worked.

My favorite passage from the book (and the one that sounds so much like me it's almost embarrassing to admit it) - while talking about the trouble of quieting the voices in her head before being able to write well; "Quieting those voices is at least half the battle I fight daily. But this is better than it used to be. It used to be 87 percent. Left to its own devices, my mind spends much of its time having conversations with people who aren't there. I walk along defending myself to people, or exchanging repartee with them, or rationalizing my behavior, or seducing them with gossip, or pretending I'm on their TV talk show or whatever."