In life, how often have we become immobilized by the sheer enormity of a project? Maybe we were writing a book or compiling a short story collection. Perhaps when we first conceived of the idea, we were brimming with possibility— “This is going to be brilliant!” a heartening voice reassured us. But come time to do the real work and we freeze up. Sitting at our work stations, we feel like our desks: disorganized and in disarray, cluttered by crumbled notes and dusty encyclopedias. Rather than focus on the next doable step, we become debilitated by the journey itself. “What made us think we could possibly write a book?” we demand to know, scoffing at the impracticable naiveté we mistook for light-hearted optimism, “A book is hundreds, sometimes thousands of pages long. How could we ever expect to accomplish something of such spectacular magnitude?” A writer pondering the immensity of his project is akin to a Muslim dwelling on the distance to Mecca. A man making a holy pilgrimage doesn’t stop to brood over the arduousness of his trek— he just puts one foot in front of the other. So must the writer.
Over half a century after Brenda Ueland published her stirring entreaty to lead a bold, creative life, endearingly candid novelist Anne Lamott professed the beauty of short assignments in Bird by Bird, her delightful instruction manual for writing and life. For Lamott, whom Maria Popova has called a “writer of exceptional lucidity and enchantment,” the antidote to overwhelm is breaking down the insurmountable into small, manageable tasks. In a voice as resonant with humor as with wisdom hard-won, Lamott advises writers to focus only on what can be seen through a one-inch picture frame (a lovely idea that has often consoled me when I struggle at the page). Rather than try to write a whole book at once, we must remember that every book— no matter its quality or length— was written one word, one page at a time:
“Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of— oh, say— say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.
What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop…I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.
It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I’m going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I’m going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car— just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.”
Later, Lamott recalls the incident three decades ago that would inspire Bird by Bird’s title:
“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, which 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.'”
Because much of the creative life is plagued by self-disparagement and self-doubt, Lamott— like a warm, lovingly reassuring mother— encourages us to stop being so serious and approach the task of writing with a sense of humor. “Lighten up” is the advice underlying her philosophy as a writer. Instead of chastise ourselves for falling short of our impossible ambitions, we must adopt a gentler, more forgiving, more nurturing voice with which to speak to ourselves:
“In the Bill Murray movie Stripes, in which he joins the army, there is a scene that takes place the first night of boot camp, where Murray’s platoon is assembled in the barracks. They are supposed to be getting to know their sergeant, played by Warren Oates, and one another. So each man takes a few moments to say a few things about who he is and where he is from. Finally it is the turn of this incredibly intense, angry guy named Francis. ‘My name is Francis,’ he says. ‘No one calls me Francis— anyone here calls me Francis and I’ll kill them. And another thing. I don’t like to be touched. Anyone here ever tries to touch me, I’ll kill them,’ at which point Warren Oates jumps in and says, ‘Hey lighten up, Francis.’
This is not a bad line to have taped to the wall of your office.
Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.”
Bird by Bird remains one of my most treasured books about writing and the writing life. If you want more soul-sustaining encouragement, read Anne Lamott on how friendship teaches us to be merciful, how to salvage your sanity in a nutty world, and how to find a wellspring of hope in a desperate desert of despair. Want to uncover more gems of writing advice? Revel in Brenda Ueland’s insights on art as infection, the qualities of good writing, the incubation of ideas & the importance of idleness to creativity, the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine and why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, all from yet another timeless classic on art, independence and spirit If You Want to Write.
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