As a lead-in to Anne Lamott’s appearance on campus—as one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—my students and I read and discussed the chapter “Shitty First Drafts” from Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life (1994). It’s a chapter that I’ve read with my students several times throughout my years of teaching, one I should probably assign every semester because it offers some of the most valuable advice about writing and life that I’ve read.
Lamott advises her readers to give themselves permission to write awful—or as she puts it, “shitty”—first drafts because they’re an essential part of the process. Later in the chapter, she refers to the first draft as the child’s draft, “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.” That’s the same way that I, and many other writers and teachers, envision freewriting. When my students and I freewrite in our journals, I tell them to keep writing even when they think that they have nothing to say, because eventually they will have something to say. And until then, it’s okay to write over and over I have nothing to say, or blah, blah, blah. In Lamott’s words:
[T]here may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would have never gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.
I wasn’t able to see Lamott when she spoke Thursday night at P. E. Monroe auditorium. (While she was there, I was standing on another stage a mile or so away, wearing a nun’s habit and screaming at monks—but that’s another story.) I was, however, able to attend her Friday-morning talk in Belk Centrum, where she told the students not to get bogged down in trying to please people—that they shouldn’t aim to write what they think other people will like but instead write to express their own truth.
In response to an audience member’s question about outlining, Lamott replied no, she doesn’t write outlines but plans her work on oversized sheets of graph paper on which draws large circles like lily pads for her ideas. She said she loves paper and pencils and pens, adding that she steals pens and actually stole one the night before from the Hickory Public Library.
Lamott told the audience: You don’t need to know more than you know, but you start somewhere—an idea that echoes the first line of the second paragraph of “Shitty First Drafts”: “Very few writers really know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.” She recommended reading The Paris Review interviews, especially the ones with novelists, because they show us how the writers got their work done.
In response to a question about the unfathomable questions—such as why do awful things happen to good people?—Lamott said that the most offensive thing that you can do is offer an answer that you could put on a bumper sticker. The way not to be, Lamott said, is to have little answers to unfathomable questions. Instead she said she responds by saying, read more poetry, and I will, too. And I’ll stay if you want me to, and maybe tomorrow we’ll go buy some make-up or go on a field trip . . . .
After a student said that she identified with Lamott because she, too, was a liberal and a Christian, Lamott simply said: “It’s very hard to be the things you are.”
Lamott added that if you’re pretending to be someone you aren’t because you’re addicted to people-pleasing, then you’re never going to be able to be yourself. She concluded with these words: I hope my writing gives you the confidence to be who you are—to be yourself, not someone focused primarily on loyalty to family or country but someone with a passionate commitment to yourself.
Both her words on the page and on the stage Friday morning have led me toward that self-assurance, and I hope that they have led my students there as well.
Lamott, Anne. Visiting Writers Series Interview by Kathy Ivey. Lenoir-Rhyne U. 8 Apr. 2016.
—. “Shitty First Drafts.” College of Arts & Sciences Writing, Rhetoric & Digital Studies. U of Kentucky, n.d. PDF. 6 Apr. 2016.
One thought on ““Bird by Bird” and Word by Word, or Anne Lamott on the Page and the Stage”
Hey Jane, Lamott’s Bird by Bird is one of my favorite books on writing. How great she came to your college. Inspiring for the students. She speaks truth. I don’t outline either, incapable. I do timelines about midway. I’ve done the circles with some sort of center – occasional.