Bird by Bird (38)

I like to play with my titles here. Song titles, famous expressions. In blogging it feels like we have more license to amuse ourselves. Here I am stealing the title of Anne Lamott’s book about writing. I saw it on my shelf just the other day. It seems to fit what I want to try to write about tonight, the bit by bit approach. One day when I was in my third year of teaching English I knew I needed to begin writing for myself again. I was building an online class on the fly, in addition to my other classes, and every Sunday I stayed up all night to get the next week’s materials in place for my students by Monday morning. I had no time. But I knew I didn’t want to get to the end of my life saying I’d always wanted to be a writer. So I decided to write eleven minutes a day. I sat on my stone porch in Hopland every morning and filled a page in my composition book. I don’t remember how it happened, but characters emerged. I began writing a novel. I don’t know if it was beginner’s luck or some quirk of timing or state of mind, or maybe because the characters were so crisp and so alive for me then, but I would just sit down and “enter in” to the story every day for those eleven minutes. I thought that’s how it worked, thought I would always be able to immerse myself in that way. But today I feel light years away from that, my imagination rusty, my hand creaky, my mind less agile, less willing or able to stretch, take leaps. So, yesterday I began a commitment to address a new writing prompt from Two Sylvias Press every day in December. I’ve done two now, and like my assignments for my recent MOOC, they are nothing to write home about. But I’m hoping I can quiet my critic, just keep practicing this act of letting go that used to come to me unbidden. It’s a tightrope act, finding my balance between reaching for this hope, writing with this goal in mind, and not going rigid with it. I think to soften I may return to reading Natalie Goldberg. Or maybe I’ll read Anne Lamott’s book again. In her story, when she has a big report to write for school, her father tells her to just take it “bird by bird.” So, I’m going to take this prompt by prompt, and wish for but not insist on limbering up in the process, pray for magic but not try to hold it in my fist. And in the meantime, the birds keep showing up, too, signposts still along my way. But that is a story for another day.

4 thoughts on “Bird by Bird (38)

  1. I can totally relate to this with fiction. Now that I spend more time working on social media posts, blogs, press releases etc my fiction muscles have definitely grown stiff. I’m working on them, but it doesn’t come as easy as it used to and sometimes that worries me a little bit…

  2. Yes, I am mainly thinking about fiction, too, Alexis! Though it feels like even with my memoir or blog posts I am less likely to feel the ease I remember feeling. I think it scares me a little. And the “dumb” thing about it is of course becoming afraid it may never “flow” the way it used to is the perfect way to ensure it never does! ;-)

    But I do believe in practice, so for now I am going to do a prompt a day and see if I can get out of my own way and just find that playful place I have visited before. Otherwise, I will trust at some point in returning to writing my novel or writing a new short story it may roll over into something like that sense of it I remember. It is the magic part I feel like I used to touch more often. And I would very much like it back. :)

    Thanks so much for writing, Alexis. It feels good knowing you can relate to this, too. Here’s to limbering up our fiction muscles!

  3. Thanks for writing about writing here. I read the Anne Lamott book too. A good read imo but came away same as now, w writing happening more or less at its own time and place/pace. And not seemingly something I can conjure up at will. Riba and Alexis, your comments here do touch a chord for me about playing music. I gave up guitar 40+ years ago. When I tried again recently, some was easy and some was tougher, but it did “come back.” Maybe I can only access 8 verses of an 11 verse Dylan song (audience would be grateful!) But it’s there (and the rest of the verses are available online now, what a change.) It’s like a seam (ok, musicians would say a groove…) : ) Maybe writing and playing/singing music are also physical, like actual body exercise. Dexterity inside and out.

  4. Sorry I didn’t reply here earlier, Laurie. I haven’t gotten my email notifications for the most recent comments on my blog for some reason (though it is still turned on—hopefully some fluke that is now over!).

    As you know, I am determined to return to regular writing practice now to see how it changes me. Natalie Goldberg talks a lot about this. In Writing Down the Bones (which I did choose to return to over Anne Lamott’s book), she quotes Katagiri Roshi. “Your little will can’t do anything. It takes Great Determination. Great Determination doesn’t mean just you making an effort. It means the whole universe is behind you and with you—the birds, trees, sky, moon, and ten directions.” Goldberg urges regular writing practice, “so that our writing muscles are in good shape to ride the universe when it moves us.”

    I love this. So, yes, I do think all art involves the body—it involves all levels of us. Goldberg compares writing practice to running, too. And playing an instrument would be the same thing, I think. There is an element of letting go in each of them. . . .

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