Mister Eclectic (howeird) wrote,
Mister Eclectic

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For the Birds

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, is billed as "everything I know about writing". It's a small book with short chapters.

It's highly entertaining and enormously readable. And it's crap.

Lamott is a Bay area woman whose father (Kenneth Church Lamott) was writer who, among other things, taught creative writing at San Quentin Prison. Anne is mostly noted for her Christian faith-based work.

She's clever, she has a wonderful conversational style, and comes up with great anecdotes and running gags. But the advice she gives shouts loud and clear that she is a hack, and the advice she gives makes it clear why she isn't a household name despite many published books. The reason I picked up this book is Nancie McDermott, one of my Peace Corps pals who has published three of the very best Thai cookbooks, suggested it when I asked her for advice on getting my latest travelogue published. Lamott gives no useful information on how to get published. She got her first book in print on the coattails of her father. Most of us are not born with a friendly editor or agent ready to hand.

She keeps saying that a writer must sit down and write, and let the characters live their lives. She says she doesn't know any successful authors who have a specific map of who their characters are, what they will do, and how the story will resolve. I think the problem here is she doesn't know any successful authors. While I know that characters have lives of their own, I also know that the writer is God to his/her characters. A good writer knows what his characters are going to do because he understands them before he sits down to write. He knows how they will interact with each other because he has a clear vision of what he's trying to say, and how his characters will say it.

In reading her book, one discovers Lamott is a recovering alcoholic with minuscule self-esteem, humongous jealousy issues and her self-confidence is measured in negative numbers. Not an ideal role model. It makes for great fun reading, but abysmal educational value. 

In college I was completely blown away by a fellow editor of the university newspaper, who was planning an epic novel. Cassandra was (and maybe still is) the daughter of the managing editor of the Honolulu Advertiser, and she was someone who could not live if she wasn't writing. She had a box of index cards, arranged behind index tabs in alphabetical order, of the characters in her novel. Little by little the cards filled up with biographical material, and then info on how this character related to other characters. And behind that set of cards (or maybe it was in front, or in another box) was a chronology of who did what with and to whom and when. This, I thought, was the way to write a novel. I am still envious, because I am lazy and would tend to do the wrong thing, and write like Anne Lamott. 

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