However, even when her students misinterpret her or do not listen, Lamott is good-humored. She remains devoted to writing and teaching, and she understands her students’ interest in the publishing world, even as she tries to keep it in check. While many writing guides focus on the finer points of the publishing business, Lamott goes out of her way to make it clear that this is not her emphasis.

Lamott often talks about “small things,” both in life and in writing. She explains how writers can discover large stories by beginning with the smaller details. In some ways, this methodology is similar in spirit to a religious ceremony, where the focus is on ritual that inspires faith in a greater force. Lamott’s use of the small picture frame to remind her to work on details is a meditative technique, and it focuses her on a manageable task.

When Lamott describes the act of writing, she refers to “mining a vein of memories.” In encouraging students to write about their families and their memories, Lamott emphasizes a memoir-inspired style of writing much like her own. This reinforces the idea that writing is a private process that is connected to family and personal experiences. Lamott suggests that writing about memories will often mean reliving or channeling painful and uncomfortable details, but it will also occasionally provide catharsis, and it will always give you good source material for writing.

Summary: “Shitty First Drafts,” “Perfectionism,” “School Lunches,” and “Polaroids”

Lamott disputes the misconception that successful writers simply sit down and churn out fully formed passages and chapters. Instead, she suggests that nearly every writer, no matter how successful, writes what she calls a “shitty first draft.” In fact, Lamott suggests that a shitty first draft is an almost obligatory starting point. She recalls writing restaurant reviews for California magazine. Her reviews would take shape only after she gave herself permission to write a terrible first draft.

Lamott addresses the “other voices” that exist in the head of every writer: the critic, the perfectionist, and so on. Every writer can be plagued by these voices, and fighting the voices is part of the process of writing. She recommends a mental exercise in which the writer listens to the voice, envisions the speaker turning into a mouse, and then imagines dropping the mouse into a bottle. One must keep writing even though the inner voices are saying that the work is no good.

Lamott discusses perfectionism and the terrible pressure it can create. She believes that it can almost certainly ruin your work, and therefore it is essential to push past it. Lamott states that a belief in God is helpful with this problem. If writers don’t believe in God, it is then helpful to be compassionate toward their own attempts at writing. She describes how a good story is like a thin thread of smoke that the writer must follow. The quest for perfectionism will prevent the writer from following this thread and finding the story.