Monday, March 14, 2011

Busting Ghosts of Haunted Writers

I've been re-reading Anne Lamott's highly respected how-to for writers, Bird by Bird, and several thoughts really resonated with me.

First of all, the title itself is the first lesson any writer must learn. Anne describes a time from her childhood when her older (high school aged) brother was completely overwhelmed by the enormity of a school report on birds that he had put off the entire semester until the night before it was due. Anne's father, with words of wisdom that apply to all facets of life, advised his son that the only way to accomplish any daunting job was to break it down into small tasks.

"Take it bird by bird."

Wonderful advice for writers, of course - especially those facing the mind-boggling task of writing a book. I know when I've signed a publishing contract and the initial glee and jubilation has passed, I often find myself facing a blank computer screen with panic rising in my belly.

Where to start?
What topics to cover?
How to break the chapters up?
How not to break me up in the process?
I just can't do it! How could anybody do this?

It's ever so helpful to take my eyes off the humongous aviary flocking with thousands upon thousands of winged creatures and focus on one little wren. Ahh. Now that's do-able.

Anne also speaks of literally looking at your work through a 1" square frame in order to concentrate on one small section at a time. She actually keeps such a frame on her desk. It reminds her that the most giant puzzle (book) starts with tiny pieces that must be dealt with one by one. Bird by bird.

Another of Anne's statements really resonated with me. She was speaking about the voices in your head that distract you from writing, and called them "banchees and drunken monkeys." Oh, so extremely well said. I couldn't label them better - the screaming banchees of urgent interruptions that just can't wait (real or unreal).

The drunken monkeys that swing your fickle thoughts from tree to tree and everywhere in the jungle but where they're supposed to be. For people like me - a step beyond ADD - those darn monkeys are a huge challenge to productivity. It's amazing how much ground those monkeys can cover in no time, especially if you're fighting a deadline like I am now.

I really must get out my tranquelizer dart gun and pick off some of those drunken monkeys. Today.

And finally, Anne spoke of the "ectoplasm" of a fictional character - finding out what holds him together. His essence. Is it faith? Work? Hope? Relationships? Loyalties? Longings? (My contributions.)

I like that ... ectoplasm. The word alone dredges up visions of Bill Murray in Ghost Buster garb. I picture green goo dripping off chandeliers and globbed all over basement library card catalogs.

But the point is well taken. Ectoplasm is the internal make-up of people, real or fictional. The evidence of their presence. Not only is it important to discover the nuances and foibles of our fictional characters, but how about in real relationships as well? How often do we really study the ectoplasm of our potential friends or even foes? Not often enough, I fear.

So who ya gonna call?

Maybe Anne Lamott.


Kat Heckenbach said...

I love that book! So many things resonated with me when I read it. Like the chapter on first drafts (aptly titled, but I won't repeat it on here ;). Readers generally only see the finished products, and we new writers have to constantly remind ourselves that even the most experienced writers don't publish their first drafts! It's okay if your first draft is horrible--not just okay, but *expected*. Knowing I don't have to get it right the first time through really takes the pressure off--knowing that even the best writers have to go back and *fix* their writing makes it feel so much more doable.

OK, so now I want to go read that book again!