Bird by Bird

I should have reminded you that my use of “shitty first draft” comes from Anne Lamott’s splendid writing book, Bird by Bird. 

Lamott (if I remember correctly) credits Ernest Hemingway (all first drafts are shit) and other writers. But she puts it so well. Every quarter that I taught Creative Nonfiction, I used to spend one class session reading aloud Lamott’s chapter, “Shitty First Drafts.” It didn’t take 50 minutes to read, but students would want to talk about process after hearing it. And we wrapped up the session by taking a few minutes to write — shittily, of course.

Click here to read “14 Writing Tips from Anne Lamott.”


Why is it that — even without the teaching career — even without the three little girls who were underfoot for so many years and now are nearly grown — I STILL feel overwhelmed and as though I don’t have enough time to write?

Because Louise DeSalvo told me to, I have been reading The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others Do in 12 Months. In this book, which is largely for manager-types and salespeople, Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington explain that time is finite:

“It’s important to realize the simple truth that you can’t do it all; otherwise you will continue to labor under the false belief that you will eventually catch up, and finally get to the important stuff. You will continue to use all of your time on the urgent day-to-day activity and postpone the strategic that is required to create breakthrough and, ultimately, the life you desire.” (138)

You wouldn’t think that this would be such a big idea. I’ve encountered it before, and in contexts more relevant to my writing life. But it caught me at a vulnerable moment. And then these sentences, a few paragraphs down the page:

“Reaching a breakthrough isn’t about being incremental. Breakthrough requires a profound change in the way that you work…”

You have no doubt heard before much of what Moran and Lennington say. But their idea of ditching annual goals for 12-week goals strikes me as brilliant. You can still have annual goals, but you have to go through the process of breaking them down into doable 12-week chunks. Instead of writing down for 2015, “Lose 20 pounds, Declutter house; Finish two new books” — which sounds an awful lot like a wish list, rather than goals — thinking in 12-week chunks of time has made me get more concrete in all of my thinking.

If I want to lose 20 pounds this year (ultimate goal: to be radically healthy into my 90s!), how much will I have to lose over the next 12 weeks? And what actions will I have to take this week in order to be on track with my 12-week goals?

To finish my novel rewrite before I take my Florida vacation (which was about 7 weeks out when I started reading The 12 Week Year), what actions will I need to take? This week? Today?

To send the requested 8-10 poems to the journal that requested them by the end of May, what actions do I absolutely have to take this morning, now?

I started by printing up a 12-week calendar that fits on a single, 8×10 page — a planning practice from my teaching days. I had SO much to write into it, that I then made the calendar days bigger and put it on two pages of six weeks each. I divided up the work, leaving myself leeway (I know myself too well to think I won’t need leeway), and planning for Sundays off from writing.

Today, one poem, polished and put in the file to submit. (Tomorrow, another.)

I’ll let you know what happens.

“How do I revise?”

This is for Louise.

1. Type and print out your work. Reread it with a pen in your hand. You don’t have to give anything up, at least not at first. Just jot down your notes. Underline words that you’re not sure about.

2. Read your work aloud, just to yourself. Listen to yourself. (You can add movement, pacing can help with tempo. Standing up can change your perspective.)

3. Try doing something on the page to make the words more visible. You can use highlighters to pick out patterns. You can circle all of the adjectives, or all of the verbs. (Do one at a go, then the next.)

4. Cut some of the adjectives (and adverbs, too, those -ly words). Decide which ones your reader really needs, and which ones you used out of habit.

5. If you have a lot of was and is or have verbs, see if you can spice them up. Sometimes this is easy: change was sitting to sat. Instant fix!

6. Make a decision to ADD something. Maybe just concrete nouns one time; the next, maybe color; maybe sounds.

7. When I feel myself getting far away from something, I reverse the advice of #1 and write it out in longhand. (I think this is a right brain / left brain trick.)

8. Remember, above all, that it’s YOURS. And it’s not written in stone.


Be Kind, Work Hard, Give Thanks

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I saw this bag at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) conference… which I managed to attend sporadically last week despite also driving back and forth to Olympia to see my mother four times (five times!). PNWA where, incidentally, I came in second (!) in two of the fiction categories (short story and mainstream), and met several agents and editors who invited me to show them some pages.

Up and down. That was my week. Mom was better, then she was worse. Then, a little progress in physical therapy gave us hope. Seeing her grandkids from out of state gave us hope. Learning to accept a new reality gave me more hope than I expected.

Last week I felt really really brave. When my literary  agent suggested I find “fresh eyes,” I gave her up without the slightest angst (very unlike me).  The bag, by the way, belongs to an editor at Sourcebooks, who would like to see the novel. I met lots and lots of very cool writers who, like me, are throwing their hearts into the ring…

I also met some really wonderful nurses and CNAs who definitely know how to be be kind, work hard, and give thanks.

At this point, on all fronts, I am simply waiting to see what happens next.  And I’m taking notes.