Summary: “Getting Started” and “Short Assignments”

Lamott emphasizes telling the truth and says it is a primary component of good writing. She advises her students to start by writing about their childhoods. If the enormity of this topic seems overwhelming, she suggests starting with memories of their first few years of school. However, the important thing is to just begin writing something and to capture the details of some event. If this doesn’t work, Lamott advises writing about a particular holiday. Ultimately, writing is simply a matter of sitting down and plunging in. Writers may suffer from insecurities, worries, and distractions, but it is crucial to continue to write and persist with faith, despite the obstacles the mind might throw at you.

Lamott emphasizes that something salvageable can often be found, even in a piece of bad writing. Writers must be open to the twists and turns their stories take, even if those twists and turns result in an entirely different story than the one they originally planned to write. Her students respond to Lamott’s writing advice by asking how they can find an agent. But Lamott continues to emphasize the actual process of writing rather than publication.

Lamott’s students are fixated on being published. She repeatedly cautions both her students and her readers that publication is not some magical solution that will rescue writers from the hardships of reality.

In “Short Assignments,” Lamott states that novice writers should always start with short assignments so they are not overwhelmed. Lamott then describes how she sits down to write each day and how she is utterly unfocused until her glance falls on the square, one-inch picture frame on her desk. The little picture frame reminds her to focus on just a small piece of the whole story. When a writer starts with a small focus and then widens it gradually, the story will come together more easily.

Lamott describes the advice her father gave to her brother when he was overwhelmed by a school project on birds. Her father told her brother to take it “bird by bird.” Along those same lines, Lamott advises her students to focus on small steps, rather than on the entire project.


In Part One, Lamott discusses her students’ response to her methods of teaching and suggests that her students are too concerned with getting published. Lamott is far more interested in teaching them how to write. Additionally, as she points out, there is no secret to publishing success.