I am a big fan of Anne Lamott’s writing about life and about writing. So I’m going to riff on a post about her that is making the rounds. She gave a Ted talk in 2015 about everything she knew as she was about to turn 61. It’s all great stuff and I recommend going here to listen to it. But then come back here—or don’t leave—because I’m going to repeat what she has to say about things I think pertain especially to writing because I hear them again and again when I’m talking to writers, including myself, and then I’m going to add what I know.
1. “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes.” That includes you.
Anne Lamott is totally right about this. I have a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing and I’ve been writing and teaching for more years than I care to count now, but I had to go get life coach certification to cope with the fact that no amount of knowledge of the craft is going to save you from the fact that writing, like anything else worthwhile, isn’t easy. When the going gets tough, learn how to push through. Then take a nap.
2. Nothing outside of you will help you in any real, lasting way. Radical self-care is the only thing that will get you through. It’s hard to admit, but it’s true, and it works the other way around too. “If it is someone else’s problem, you probably don’t have the solution,” she says.
I published a guest blog a couple of weeks ago about taking radical responsibility for your writing and the path that you choose. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that just about everything can be made better by what I’ve learned in recovery: to clean up my own side of the street. Even if most of the problem IS somebody else’s. Take responsibility for the tiny, tiny part that is yours. Clean that up. Then go have a pedicure.
3. “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared. Everyone, even the people who seem to have it most together.” So don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides, she warns.
Whew, boy, does this ever apply to writing. I knew so many people in graduate school who were more talented than I and did so much better than I did publishing early. On a daily basis, the stars in the department aligned somewhere not in my vicinity. Many of these people ended up doing very well in the long run. And some of them didn’t. What I can say, is that writing is a long game. And he or she who remains standing at the end of the race wins (hahahahahahaha).
4. Every writer puts down terrible first drafts. The trick is that they commit to sticking with it. They take it Bird by Bird, her father’s advice that became the heart of her bestselling book. “Every story you own is yours. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better,” she says. “You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart — your stories, visions, memories, visions and songs. Your truth, your version of things, your own voice. That is really all you have to offer us. And that’s also why you were born.”
Amen. I want to emphasize that Anne says that the first draft NEEDS to be bad. That is because it is VERY easy to, out of fear or perfectionism or the general need to please, write conventionally. So, if you want your own voice to emerge and you want the blood and guts of your story to appear on the page, then just write really badly. Don’t get confused about the heart of the story, which is necessarily a mess, and the craft, which is where, later on, you bring what you know or are learning about craft to bear on it.
5. Creative success is “something you have to recover from. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine.” And that brings us back to #1, because creative success is also amazing. “It is a miracle to get your work published,” she says. “Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes inside you. It can’t. It won’t.”
Once again, amen. I have spoken with so many people (and suffered from the same delusion myself) that success as a writer will fix everything that is wrong. I have succeeded quite a lot—great publications, awards, recognition—and yet I get up and have a new struggle every day. Many people are actually ruined by success. Those who are not are those who are dedicated to the writing itself, no matter what the outcome.
6.Families are both astonishing and hard. “Earth is forgiveness school,” she says. “It begins with forgiving yourself — then you might as well start at the dinner table.”
Once again, people so often come to me afraid to tell their story because they are still angry or grieving or wanting to prove a point (or score one). Forget it. Forgive them. Forgive yourself for holding this grudge. Let go of all sense of victimization. And tell your story. Your family may or may not forgive you. Invite them to tell their own story. (That is a fine revenge!)