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Lamott says that writers often stand apart from the crowd,
observing rather than participating. She emphasizes that writers
must work to really see their surroundings. Writers must look at
the world tenderly and recognize each being’s special qualities.
In order to do this, writers should practice a state of compassionate
detachment. They should try to see the world without being overwhelmed by
it. Lamott likens this detachment to the sense of reverence children
feel toward the world.
Writers must care passionately about the story they are
working on. If they don’t, failure is certain. For Lamott, all writing
has a moral point of view, even when it does not preach a message
or a particular religious viewpoint. The characters must be human,
and the story must have something to say about humanity and society
at large. A few basic themes and elements of life have persisted
through the ages, and if your writing does not reflect some of these
themes and elements, you will find it difficult to continue telling
your story. To be a good writer, you must have something new to
convey to your audience.
Intuition must also play a prominent part in a writer’s
search for the truth. To explain this concept, Lamott refers to
an old Mel Brooks routine in which a psychiatrist tells a patient,
“Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to
eat it.” If a writer really listens to the work he is producing,
Lamott says, intuition will guide him to the next step. Adults often
teach children to ignore their intuition at an early age, but it
is imperative to reconnect with intuition in order to succeed as
a writer. One way to listen to your intuition is to actively quiet
the inner voices of doubt and judgment that urge you to be more
conventional. Some writers find it useful to imagine their intuition
as a little animal or a friendly person who gives tips on where
the story should be heading.
Lamott jokes that often when a writer sits down to write,
she will hear the radio station KFKD blaring in her head. KFKD plays
the voices and the sounds that make writers feel like self-pitying geniuses
or incompetent hacks. The best way to deal with this internal noise
is to become aware of it. True concentration on silencing the voices
is the only solution.
The most powerful voice on KFKD is jealousy, which plagues every
writer at some point. Jealousy bares its teeth when you are underpaid
or your talent is undervalued. It only gets worse when another writer
with no talent is given a lucrative book deal and lots of praise
and media attention. Jealousy will make you feel awful and resentful.
Lamott recalls one writer friend who often complained about her
fame and money at a time when Lamott herself was very poor. Lamott
forces herself to listen and be supportive even though jealousy
was consuming her. When she called her friends to ask for advice,
some offered spiritual guidance and others offered practical tips.
What finally helped Lamott was writing about her envy and developing
a sense of humor about it. Eventually, the jealousy faded, although
Lamott did distance herself from her preening writer friend.
Though Lamott takes pains to separate issues of morality
from religious beliefs, her religion is clearly a pervasive influence.
Her belief that writing must be moral, for example, is not one all
authors share. Lamott uses the word moral to describe
something the author cares about passionately. She takes pains to
connect writing to large themes and expects her students to do the
Lamott compares the act of writing to the process of childbirth
or the act of caring for another being, such as a puppy. Essentially,
fiction should be treated with patience and respect. Lamott counsels compassion
for the act and art of writing. She admits that writers will often
hear the hostile jabber of KFKD—their own internal critics—but they
must silence the voices as best they can. Lamott refers to God and
the belief that God exists in all things—even in a frustrating novel
or a difficult child. As parents care for children, so should writers
care for their work.
Throughout the book, Lamott advocates simple solutions
for complex problems. Some readers might view this pattern as simplistic,
others as wise. For example: how do you start writing? Sit down and
write. How do know what to write? Wait for the work to tell you.
Lamott often advises writers to simply breathe. This advice is similar
to practices associated with meditation or Zen Buddhism. The simplicity
of her advice is also mirrored structurally in her direct, conversational
tone and matter-of-fact anecdotes. Lamott values simplicity but
not necessarily austerity. She saves her book from becoming too
idealistic by pointing out the practical difficulties that arise
even when writers take a simple approach.
Lamott describes accepting her own jealousy without preaching about
kindness or acceptance. At the end of the chapter on jealousy, she
even describes her jealousy as strangely “beautiful,” even though
it is often incapacitating. Throughout the chapter, she recalls her
efforts to deal with jealousy almost as if describing a spiritual quest.
She also makes it clear that she has taken some space from her writing
friend. This episode contains a mix of the spiritual and the practical,
as does most of Lamott’s writing.
Lamott describes writers as people on the edge of society
who look and record without getting swept away by excessive emotion. Good
writers will view most events in life—good or bad—as “material.”
Though Lamott does not directly reference Buddhist thought, she
clearly considers the process of writerly observation to be spiritual
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bird by Bird!