My most recent attempt at reading writer advice books is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Toward the beginning of the book, Lamott references another author with the advice that in order to write, you just sort of need to do it. Reading this, I groaned. I’ve heard variations of this before, perhaps about writing, but definitely about other problems I’m having. It reminds me a bit of when you’re feeling upset, and someone tells you to “cheer up!” Obviously, this is your end goal, but you’re not just going to magically get there by hearing the words. Usually, I cry harder on the person who said this out of spite. What prevented me from tossing the book away in frustration is that the rest of Lamott’s advice gives this rule more context and guides you towards it, rather than expecting you to figure it out on your own.
Hearing or imagining this piece of advice usually triggers negative feelings. I know that this is accurate: that eventually, I’ll have to start writing if I ever want to get anything done, but it hurts sometimes to be hit with it. I begin to worry that maybe I’m incapable of writing because I’m lazy, that if it was that simple, wouldn’t I have been able to do it already?
Starting to write is the goal, but it’s getting there that’s difficult. I think the usefulness of this advice depends on what surrounds it. If you throw it out there to someone who is clearly struggling with no context, it’s not going to do anything. Maybe this is what people need to hear sometimes: that they don’t need to follow a special formula in order to be successful, and that getting started is that simple. But for the others that may have already tried to start writing and been unable to, then what? For me, it usually throws me into a spiral of self-hate, from which I emerge just as lost as before.
When I came across this sentiment in Bird by Bird, my thought process was something along the lines of here we go again. However, Lamott does a good job at going, let’s say, “behind the scenes” of this advice by demonstrating that it isn’t quite as simple as it appears.
Lamott’s discussions on how difficult life as a writer is can be a bit discouraging since she shatters a lot of daydreams I’ve had about becoming famous, but it’s also really helpful because it shows that I’m not alone in struggling. As the title implies, you start small and practice until you can do more.
I used to be a somewhat decent runner until I injured both of my knees and had to take almost a year off from sports. Since then, I’ve never quite been able to get back into shape, partially I think because I hold myself to really high standards, expecting to be able to run like I used to and becoming discouraged when I can’t. I suppose the same goes for my writing, where I can’t realistically expect to sit down and suddenly be inspired to write continuously for hours. I’ve probably heard this advice before, but Bird by Bird repeats it until it’s ingrained.
Short pithy statements look good on paper, but they are deceptively simple, and in their simplicity, are discouraging. There’s a story, a process behind each of them that is hidden for the sake of appearances. Figuring out how to function, how to heal, how to be productive, is hard. Perhaps we narrow it down because it’s impossible to explain everyone’s process. It’s easier to tell people to just write than to go into the infinite issues that are blocking them from doing so. I suppose as Lamott does that the best solution is to explain your experiences and hope it resonates with someone.
I feel now is the time for me to deliver some resounding statement about figuring out how to write, but, really, I have nothing. I am still in the process of figuring that out for myself, which is why I spend my time complaining about other’s advice rather than giving my own.
I think that for me a roadblock to writing is my intuition. Lamott has a section she titled “Broccoli”, where she talks about trusting your instincts when writing, and how difficult it can sometimes be to do so. She explains how we learn not to trust our thoughts when they are belittled or opposed by others, and how writing is partially learning how to overcome this. While this is nowhere near the extent of the issues that block me from working, it’s something that resonated with me. When I write for classes, I go back through my work and take out anything that I think other people won’t like rather than stopping to think about why I added it. Practicing avoiding these types of thoughts is something I think I can do to feel more confident in my writing process.
So what can you do? The best advice I can give is to look through other people’s writing strategies and see what feels applicable to you. Though generalizing doesn’t really work, chances are someone else has had the same troubles or at least one of the troubles that you have, and reading their work and how they cope could give you ideas about how to reach the point where you can “just write”. Other times, though, looking at other people’s strategies just makes me feel worse, so I suppose it’s something to approach in moderation.
It helps to remember that people have different skills and experiences so that if you see generalizations about what people do or don’t experience when it comes to writing, you can almost guarantee that their statement is false in some way.