Recently I’ve received several emails from readers on the topic of writing, asking if I have any advice on the topic or sometimes just wanting to chat. And I’ve realized that all of my best writing advice comes from people who have a heck of a lot more experience than I do, so I’ve decided to share a favorite book of mine at the beginning of every month.
For December it seemed only right to start off with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It was the very first writing book I ever read and if I were stranded on a desert island and forced to only choose one writing book, it would definitely be this one. While it’s not a how-to manual, Lamott’s book is packed full of helpful advice and encouragement. But the following are two of my favorite insights. In fact, they’re my two favorite tips about writing period.
1. Your First Drafts Are Always Going to be Shitty (And That’s Okay)
You know how the first time you sit down to write out that blog post or novel or article or screenplay it comes out messy and stilted and so godawful-embarrassing it makes you want to burn your laptop so that there isn’t even the chance someone will ever see the horror that you created and then you think you’d like throw your hands in the air once you’re done at the bonfire as you say your final dramatic farewell to writing?
You’re not special. It happens to everyone. This, my friend, is the reality of the shitty first draft. This is the reality of writing. Lamott writes:
People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.
The fact that the fantasy is beginning to crack as you stare at that lopsided assortment of words you’ve stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster is actually a good thing. It means you’re being initiated. You’re a writer. You write shitty first drafts, just like every other writer. Welcome to the club.
When I used to work as a writing tutor at a local college, the usual response when I complimented a student on their writing was some variation of: “But it didn’t start off like that.” I’d tell them that was more okay, normal even, for first drafts to be bad. And then they’d whisper like they were hinting about an embarrassing medical condition, “But it’s really bad.” This is when I’d do a quick check to make sure my boss wasn’t within earshot, lean in close, and say, “That’s okay. Everyone’s first drafts are shitty, really shitty.”
The fact that you and I write mortifying first drafts isn’t a medical condition. It’s just part of the process. It’s why revision is so important. Lamott writes, “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down and routinely feels wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.”
One of the most encouraging things I ever heard someone say was when I saw Anne Lamott speak a few years ago and she told the audience not to compare their shitty first drafts to anyone else’s final product. She said that even when it sounded like she was talking casually to the reader, everything we had ever read by her had been through at least three massive revisions.
Don’t compare your first draft to someone else’s third, fourth, or maybe even fifteenth draft.
2. You Own Everything that Happened to You
For me, Bird by Bird served as a permission slip. It was like Lamott reached out through the pages and presented me with a crisp piece of paper that declared in large flowery print Kelsey Owns Her Life. Lamott writes:
Remember that you own everything that happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point at you, while a chilling voice thundered, ‘We told you not to tell.’ But that was then.
I’ve heard Bill Gates quoted as having said that you should be nice to nerds because someday you’ll be working for them. People should equally be nice to writers (whether someone is a casual blogger or a traditionally published author on the New York Times bestseller list) because otherwise they might find themselves staring in some honest but not-exactly-flattering stories. The trouble is that writers can be hard to spot. You never know who is going to grow up to decide they want to be a writer. And, like a religion, it’s something someone can convert to at any age, so that doesn’t give you any clues on who is going to write, either.
The reality is that you’re a writer with a lifetime of stories, and the people in your life haven’t always been on their best behavior. But you own everything that has happened to you, every story — even the ones some anonymous people might prefer you only kept to yourself.
Let’s be clear on something: The fact that you own all your experiences doesn’t mean that you have to share them. I think this is important to note because sometimes I’ve found it freeing to say, “I know that I have the freedom to tell this story because I own my experience, but I’m choosing not to share it.” Maybe some of your stories are too personal to share anywhere outside of your private journal. Or maybe there would be too much backlash and you’ve decided it’s in your best interest to not share it right now. Or maybe you’d like to tell some of those darker stories but you need a little more time to heal.
I’ve found it’s been the most helpful for me to start off by learning to write unfiltered for myself. Lamott writes, “Just put down on paper everything you can remember about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.” I journal and write in Word documents that may never see the light of day. I practice writing everything I can remember and then, slowly, I figure out if it’s something I’m comfortable sharing. But before I can get to the point of deciding my comfort level, I have to start of by reminding myself that I own my experiences.
So, that is my favorite writing book. What are some of yours? Do you have any favorite writing tips or things you struggle with the most when it comes to getting those words down on paper?