The Page a Day Writers Group

Roller Coaster Start: Half an Hour with Anne Lamott

Posted on: August 3, 2010

Near my writing desk, always at the ready, is a dog-eared copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Also Operating Instructions and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.

When I ‘m doubting my ability to write anything special or meaningful, I reach for these dear books (and some dark chocolate, of course) and give myself the gift of half an hour of reading- or 15, if that’s all I can spare- and I’m fortified with the faith that I just need to keep writing and reading through the doubt. What is doubt anyway, but a small, sour, troll-like persnicketer trompling through the daisy field?

From Bird by Bird (Perfectionism, p. 28): “…perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground- you can discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness makes me think of held breath… while writing needs to breathe and move.”

Oh, what ambrosia, those words. Just write “shitty first drafts,” as Lamott suggests. It’s so freeing. As I move forward, editing is more fun with every year. Even when it’s painful, it’s a satisfying pain (let’s not consult Freud on this one!)- and I wouldn’t even call it pain anymore. It’s more of a slight post-workout ache- I know I’ve been strengthening muscles in the process.

Here’s a beautiful passage from Traveling Mercies: Thoughts on Faith (p. 126, Fields): “Both babies on the beach finally fell asleep. The mother sighted a grunty exhausted sigh and let her head drop down onto her chest. It had grown very quiet on the beach again, and I dug a fingernail into the palm of my hand, traced its furrows, the wrinkles, the life line. A breeze began to blow, finally blowing in the smells of the sea, of the sun on the salty water. I listened to the sound of the air moving softly and thought about my father at the gates of the prison, thirty years ago, standing with his friends and me underneath the moon.”

I love that passage because I can see it, smell it, and feel it. Beyond just the tactile feel of the beach and the wrinkles on the palm- it has an emotional resonance that fills the moment. I want to read more. It teaches me again and again how to do that.

And finally, from Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, a book that made me feel so gratefully human ten years ago in my new motherhood, I’m sure I kissed the book jacket several times (page 119, December 3): “I have spent so much of my life with secret Swiss-cheese insides, but I tell you- right now, Mama, my soul is full.”

It was difficult- so difficult- to pick a quote from this book, but I love that one like many, many others. This book reminds me that even with all the challenges of life (much moreso at that stage of new motherhood than now, thank God- at least until the kids’ teen years hit!), life is also full-to-the-brim delicious, in a soulful way.

A timewarp bookmark rests on that page, placed there long ago for me to find today. It’s a simple white rectangle of construction paper and it says, in my mother’s writing, “Roller Coaster Start.”

Yes! Got it? Roller Coaster Start!

Rock ‘n roll daisies to you,

Ondine

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4 Responses to "Roller Coaster Start: Half an Hour with Anne Lamott"

Ondine, you’re such a beautiful writer – even when blogging! I especially love your definition of “doubt.” Only you can make such a negative word sound interesting :).

I think I’ll move some of my favorite books/ devotional tools closer to my computer to help me get through some of my moments of doubt regarding my own writing ability.

Thank you, Sharon. You are so sweet. Yes- so good to have the favorites within reach. What’s one of your favorites?

Lamott gives writers permission to try and fail. And only through those sh*tty first drafts can we try, try again and succeed. You’ve given us permission to doubt our abilities and still soldier on., recognizing that doubt is just part of the package. I’m reminded of the saying: true character is finishing the task long after the excitement has died out. I might add: a true writer finished her work inspite of doubt.

Cheers to finishing a work! Even if it takes a long, long time! Thank you, Claire.

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The Page a Day Writers Group is a diverse collection of wonderful writers based in San Diego, CA. We've been meeting monthly since 2004. Our primary function is in-depth writing critique, marketing and brainstorming, but there's usually some wine, chocolate and ribaldry involved too. We write fantasy, humor, literary fiction, nonfiction, romance, thrillers and YA. Join us on our journeys to publication and the wonderland beyond!

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