I just finished reading Anne Lamott’s remarkable book about the process of writing, Bird By Bird. What a revelation!. I don’t know why I have never read it before. It was written in 1995. I must have sold 5000 copies at Cody’s over the years. I know a lot of writers who have said that this book changed their life.
I suppose the reason I never read it is that I just didn’t think very deeply about the process of writing during my 35 years in retail. I read a lot and knew a lot about what was going on in the book business. But by the time a book arrived at the store, the process was over.
So now I’m at the other end of the publishing food chain. I’m not exactly the midwife to the book; more like the Lamaze teacher. I see a lot of “shitty first drafts”. That is Anne Lamott’s luminous term of art. More on that later. Now most of my work has to do with the process of writing. Well, this is not exactly true, but the other things I do are for another blog and another time.
Anyway, back to Anne Lamott. Bird By Bird. It is at times hysterically funny, wise, tough-minded but encouraging. She is secure enough as a writer to share with you her own experiences of her all-too-human insecurities about life in general and writing in particular.
Look at her 3rd chapter entitled: “Shitty First Drafts”. When I see these by writers in the course of my work (which is all the time), I want to give up on the author. Sometimes I want to give up on being an agent. Lamott says that these “shitty first drafts” are an inherent part of the writing process, even a necessary part, even an admirable part. It allows the writer to get the material, shitty though it may be, onto the page. And the work of the accomplished author is finding the one sentence in the two shitty pages sitting in front of her that she will want to remember and use.
Lamott had a wonderful chapter on writing dialogue. I read it at about three o’clock in the morning and emailed my client immediately about some changes that needed to be made in her book proposal. You can’t just write down a conversation between two people. You have to make sure that the voices of the characters are differentiated in the dialogue. You can’t just use dialogue to further the plot. It also has to deepen the character. Otherwise it becomes flat and confusing. But this makes writing dialogue devilishly hard.
One of the most amusing, but spot-on, chapters is about thoughts that get in the way of your writing. She calls it tuning into radio station KFKD, or K-Fucked. She says: “station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker…will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement…Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing.” (God, I’m feeling that right now).
She also has a lot to say about getting published. This was especially poignant for me, since my job is actually to get my clients published. Lamott said something very wise. She said: “Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things….”
I think about this a lot in my own work as an agent. I go to a lot of writers’ conferences. I talk to a lot of writers at these. They send me their book proposals and writing samples. Then we have a meeting about it that lasts for 15-30 minutes. I also participate in a lot of agents’ panels. And I have started giving some workshops on writing book proposals. (Don’t tell anyone my dirty little secret. Two years ago, when I was still a bookseller, I didn’t know what a book proposal was).
I found a couple of clients at these conferences. One of them just got a publishing contract. But mostly I talk to people who are not going to get published. A lot of them have written personal memoirs, a genre much out of fashion with publishers right now. They call them “me-moirs”. ‘Nuff said.
The writers at the conferences have poured their hearts and souls into these projects. And I have no doubt that they have learned so much about themselves and the world in the process. Anne Lamott tells these writers that this is the real value of writing. Publication is overrated.
Frequently I get graded by the participants after I give a workshop or presentation. Although I try to be realistic and emphasize the dismal reality of getting published, I take a lot of criticism for being unnecessarily discouraging to writers. After reading Anne Lamott, I think I would have to accept this criticism as valid.
When you really think about it, everyone is a hero in their own life story. Every memoir of a life is an epic. Paradoxically every person’s life is larger than life. But this is quite different from the mundane and commercial considerations that publishers consider in their decision to acquire a book.
What I have started telling writers, what I would like them to hear from me, and what Anne Lamott has said so much better than I ever could, is that writing is an incredibly courageous undertaking. It is an activity that begins in the dark without any real knowledge of where the journey is destined to end. Or to use another metaphor of a race. Sometimes you will cross the finish line, receive the silver jug and go off into the sunset. But more often you will slip on a banana peel and break your leg 20 yards before the end of the race. But what an adventure it has been!
Which brings us to Camus. Albert Camus wrote his masterpiece, The Myth of Sisyphus. in 1942. A lot of you probably read it in your freshman humanities course. Camus always took on the big themes, in this case, the meaning of life. Sisyphus is condemned by the gods for all eternity to roll a boulder up a mountain, whence it will then roll down of its own weight. For Camus this was a metaphor of human life, a ceaseless striving in a universe without meaning.
It strikes me that this is also a metaphor for the work of the writer. For Camus, Sisyphus’s effort is heroic and filled with grandeur. In the final, unforgettable lines of his book, Camus says: ” Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”