Word by Word

I have found that whatever else I am reading, it´s a good thing to have a book at hand that is about writing or some other kind of creative art that I can relate to. It´s a good thing to surround yourself with people who do what you do, but are better at it, and it´s not always possible to actually have real, live, people around. I have participated in writing groups over the years, but at the moment, I prefer to work alone, for a number of reasons. But, as any reader knows, good manuals are like preserving jars of great teachers. It also makes good sense to return to these books after a few years. You can´t really learn what you are not yet ready to learn. And so, when you return to the same teacher (and the same teaching) but from another level, you will find other lessons.

Or stitch by stich.
Lately, I have been reading "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" by Anne Lamott, who is a creative writing teacher and author from San Francisco. I haven´t read anything by her, she is not translated to Swedish at all as far as I can see. Her subjects seem to be death, alcoholism, and christianity. And writing. I know she is very funny and insightful about writing, and I have a feeling she is funny and insightful about all those other subjects as well. She says she tries to write stories that are "funny and sick and therefore true".

This is a snippet of how Lamott describes what it´s like to sit down to work every day:
"...the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable,[...]. First I try to breathe, because I’m either sitting there panting like a lapdog or I’m unintentionally making slow asthmatic death rattles. So I just sit there for a minute, breathing slowly, quietly. I let my mind wander. After a moment I may notice that I’m trying to decide whether or not I am too old for orthodontia and whether right now would be a good time to make a few calls, and then I start to think about learning to use makeup and how maybe I could find some boyfriend who is not a total and complete fixer-upper and then my life would be totally great and I’d be happy all the time, and then I think about all the people I should have called back before I sat down to work, and..."
And this is what she suggests for a solution:
"There may be a Nurse Ratched–like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk."
If this does not make you smile, it probably means you have never tried to write; it probably means you have never failed to write. Yes, there are authors who say they have no problem writing, they do it from eight to five and then make dinner for their families, and don´t believe in writer´s block and procrastination (Jan Guillou and Peter Englund comes to mind), but most of us struggle. I think it´s because we don´t really understand the process. I have lately learned that if the process is what is tripping you up, you must begin with the process. You must mend your machine where it´s broken. I have known so many aspiring writers who said they don´t feel like they work unless they are typing. And typing is just a small part of the writing process. This misconception is probably cultural, perhaps even class-related, and to do with concepts of work ethic. "If you´re just going to sit there, you may as well - [fill in whatever fits]." If someone says this to you enough times, you may internalize that voice, and delude yourself that you will be able to make yourself useful and think about and decide what you are going to write later, at the same time. And then have the energy to do it. Right.

The crux is, for me at least (and this may be the introvert-thing), that the big part of writing - the long walks, the playing with images, the research, the daydreaming, the silent pottering with domestic chores - is something that must be done in solitude. It has seemed to me like a good idea to spend all afternoon in long chats on the phone or long sits in sofas drinking liters of tea, listening to and telling stories about the shit that happened. Ok, doing this can actually be a good thing, I mean, we all need to vent, all need to mull through stuff with sympathetic friends. But sitting in sofas hour after hour talking about shit that happens very easily becomes a lifestyle, something that you do with your friends because that´s what your friendship is all about. So, you may find yourself digging pretty deep for the shit. Or make shit up. Or worse, make shit happen. This is an excellent way to fuck up one´s work, not to mention one´s life. In the end, the only serious shit happening to me was that nothing was happening to me. No writing getting done. I have been more productive this last year than in the previous 12 years I supposedly devoted half my working hours to writing, because I finally realized that my big complaint was that I wasn´t getting any writing done. It was a case of ergo, if you see what I mean. I had to get up from the couch.

I´m not saying I´m any good at it yet, but I am practicing. Lamott is suggesting that I will never be any good at it and will struggle for ever. Fair enough. I´m not planning on turning into a recluse and my life is an equation that isn´t quite balanced and may never be. And, this process is involving a surprising amount of grief. There is the lost time, there are all the comfy habits I´m giving up, and all the things that I thought were true that turned out not to be, many of which were rationalizations to boost my ego. It´s just like any other big transition, except this transition is happening while everything is seemingly the same. I have always been attracted to stories about people starting over, walking out or being chucked out, and making radical new lives for themselves. I have done it myself once or twice. It´s a lot easier when you start with an empty canvas, it really is. Ok, so you can never walk out on yourself, but that´s true whatever the circumstance.

In all probability, a staggering majority of all of us with aspirations of writing one or twenty good novels, are delusional. But whatever the worldly success that may or may not come, I think I am a better person for trying to do something that is truly difficult - impossible even.
"it is not going to happen for very many of them. I still think they should write with everything they have, daily if possible, and for the rest of their lives. When I suggest, however, that devotion and commitment will be their own reward, that in dedication to their craft they will find solace and direction and wisdom and truth and pride, they at first look at me with great hostility. You might think that I had just offered them membership in my embroidery club. They are angry people. This is why they write. So let me go further. There are a lot of us, some published, some not, who think the literary life is the loveliest one possible, this life of reading and writing and corresponding. We think this life is nearly ideal. It is spiritually invigorating, says a friend, who converted at eighteen from Christianity to poetry. It is intellectually quickening. One can find in writing a perfect focus for life. It offers challenge and delight and agony and commitment. We see our work as a vocation, with the potential to be as rich and enlivening as the priesthood. As a writer, one will have over the years many experiences that stimulate and nourish the spirit. These will be quiet and deep inside, however, unaccompanied by thunder or tremulous angels.''
I want to put Lamott next to Brooks Jensen on my shelf. They both teach that for the artist, the process is, or should be, more important than fame, fortune, or any particular piece of art. They offer instructions, encouragement, and good advice for that perculiar kind of person that an artist is. If that sounds like you, I can´t recommend this book enough.

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