So I know that I am coming late to the party with this, but I finally got around to reading the much-recommended Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (New York: Random House, 1995). I started out reading a library copy, and after finding something on every other page that I wanted to highlight, I gave up and bought a copy. After about two chapters, I already knew that this was going to be a book that I wanted to keep on my desk and go back to again and again.
The thing is, Lamott doesn’t really cover anything you don’t already know as a writer – but her humorous insights give you permission to own up to those things you already know. They make you feel a little less alone. And if you’re a Type-A personality like me, they help take some pressure off. I love her idea of the “1-inch picture frame”, or focusing only on the tiny little bit of story that you are working on right now, without getting bogged down by bigger questions. This description, this interaction. Because you’ve just got to get on with it. As Lamott says:
“And the story begins to materialize, and another thing is happening, which is that you are learning what you aren’t writing, and this is helping you to find out what you are writing.”
Yes! So, see? All my writing around the point? Not wasted.
I recently read a perfectly reasonable article in Writer’s Digest that made me want to throw the magazine across the room: “7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story” by K.M. Weiland. In it, Weiland advocates doing a great deal of up-front work in setting up the plot, characters, and setting of your story in outline form, so that you don’t waste time going down pointless paths later while writing. Now, this is an admirable approach, and I am glad it works for her. But I am Type-A, get-it-done, even-my-to-do-lists-have-to-do-lists kind of person, and even I felt it was a bit much. I can’t imagine how a true “pantser” (those writers who plot by the seat of their pants) would react to it.
Here’s the thing: I would love to be able to be that organized when it comes to developing a story, but that’s just not how it works for me. Don’t get me wrong, I do a lot of planning up front – for my current work-in-progress, for example, I had an entire notebook full of character information, family trees, plot notes, research notes, and so on, before I put word one on the page. But to me, it feels forced to try to jam all that into an outline too soon. So much of the story reveals itself to me as I write it. Even though I think I know the characters well, they tell me new things about themselves as I let them interact with other characters. So for me it’s important to let those characters unfold that way, and let the plot flow from that.
Weiland’s article definitely has a lot of good stuff in it. But I know that, for me, following it to the letter would be too confining.
And isn’t that what this writing thing is all about, anyway? You have to find the approach that works best for you and keep at it. Anne Lamott has a great quote about that too:
“You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side.”