Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What it's like to be a writer

Readers occasionally ask questions about being a writer. Here's a piece I wrote some years ago that might cast light on the subject:


The package arrived as I was daydreaming about William Boot. Boot, you may remember, is the unprepossessing little guy who writes a nature column entitled "Lush Places" in Evelyn Waugh's comic masterpiece Scoop.

One of the reasons I like to think about Boot is because I too, write about nature, and Boot's prose style serves as an odd source of inspiration: "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole..."

But I dream of more than Boot's exemplary style. Thanks to a case of mistaken identity, Boot's newspaper, The Beast, sends him to cover a revolution in the mythical country of Ishmaelia. There Boot survives hair-raising adventures and manages to scoop the rest of the foreign press corps, before returning to the plashy fen and his playful sister Priscilla, the one who once altered an article he had written about the habits of the badger by substituting "the great crested grebe" for "badger" throughout the manuscript, whereupon a certain major in Wales "challenged him categorically to produce a single authenticated case of a great crested grebe attacking a rabbit."

Boot's metamorphosis from quiet country writer to world- famous foreign correspondent always feeds my fantasy life whenever the going gets tough in the nature-writing business.

When the UPS man handed me that small package a few weeks ago, I knew within minutes that I too was involved in a case of mistaken identity. Actually, the mistake had to do with the book contained in that small package. With two birds in its title and pictures of three birds and a large speckled egg on its jacket, this book gave every indication of being a bird book. That's why it was sent to me.

It turns out that Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, has nothing to do with birds. It's a book about writing, a genre I usually avoid. But Fate had brought this book to my doorstep, and so I decided to read it. I ended up reading it twice and expect to dip in it again in times of need. For Anne Lamott understands better than anyone that writers need help and that writing is a deeply unpleasant occupation.

She describes what happens when she sits down to write: "You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again...There are voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. 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... There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind you have meningitis..."

This woman is uncanny. Just a few moments ago I felt a little pain too, but mine, I thought, might be a brain tumor.

Writers, she goes on to say "want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work, why they have these wonderful ideas and then they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout -- the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self- loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the hand-washing fixation..."

Yes, she has put her finger on it. It's that old double whammy of grandiosity and self-loathing that makes writing so unbearable.

It's thrilling to know that all writers go through this in order to produce the smallest crummy thing. There may be one or two exceptions who just love to write, who sit down and can barely wait to start. But Anne Lamott tells you how to deal with the likes of them. Hate them, she advises.

It's not only because she gratifies every writer's deepest and whiniest sense of self pity that I recommend this book to other writers, amateur or professional, without reservation. She also gives some useful tips for overcoming the problems she describes so poignantly.

For grandiosity, Ms. Lamott recommends attacking your job in tiny increments -- short assignments, she calls them -- and then making sure you finish each little part. Finishing things, every writer knows, is the hard part. Take it bird by bird, as Ms. Lamott's father once advised her panic-stricken ten-year-old brother who had a report on birds due the next day and he had not begun it, though he had had the assignment three months.

Her other piece of useful advice has to do with first drafts. Don't be afraid to write atrocious first drafts, she says, though in place of atrocious she uses a word that cannot be printed in a family newspaper. It rhymes with pretty. And she warns that perfectionism is what stands between you and that excremental first draft; avoid it, she exhorts.

I didn't find the rest of her advice all that useful, but that may be because I don't write fiction, and some of her chapters have to do with characters and plot. I still enjoyed reading those sections, however, because they are very funny, and filled with stories about the author herself, her childhood, her family, and her son Sam. She writes so well, in fact, that it's hard to believe that she, too, has trouble with writing. That's what's so deeply comforting about this book.

There was one thing she didn't mention, and it happens to be something that works for me: finding inspiration in the works of others. Inspiration is a curious thing--like the Muse invoked by the Ancients. It can descend from all sorts of places. Sometimes, before I start to work, I am inspired by reading something by a great prose stylist like Joseph Mitchell. And then again, sometimes the Muse is summoned by the words of William Boot: "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole..."

[Published in the Wall Street Journal on December 7, 1994 with the title: All Happy Writers are Alike: Detestable]