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Anne Lamott: Put the puppy back on the paper

I’ve previously mentioned Bay-area writer Anne Lamott in the context of her fondness for index cards and her belief in the importance of capturing ideas at the moment they come to you (it’s something I also really believe in). It’s fun to hear her talk about this stuff, too. She has a discursive speaking style that’s, by turns, insightful, frustrating, and very funny.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading her book Bird by Bird a section or two at a time whenever I have a few minutes, and I have to say, it’s one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a long time.

As a guide for young or aspiring writers, I’d put it up there with On Writing Well and Writing Down the Bones in terms of practical, really useful advice. She strips away so much of the pretense and BS about the writing process and encourages you to just start writing—focusing on small assignments (all you need to do is fill a 1″x1″ picture frame with words) and what she calls “the shitty first draft.” Great stuff.

But I think some of the most amazing passages in the book have little to do with writing, per se. It’s all about how we choose to look at the world and ourselves.

Anne Lamott speaks very candidly and unromantically on topics that I typically regard as calcified, pre-chewed, or just irredeemably corny. Faith in God, the realities of parenthood, and our sick feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and self-doubt are all laid out with raw honesty and often potty-mouthed humor. So refreshing.

Anyway, this is mostly just in the service of explaining the photo above, which depicts one of the many index cards I have over my desk. It refers to a passage from Bird by Bird that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

I am learning slowly to bring my crazy pinball-machine mind back to this place of friendly detachment toward myself, so I can look out at the world and see all those other things with respect. Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence.

For my own reasons, I’m really attracted to the idea that our minds are not others that need to be subjugated or punished for non-compliance; to see yourself as somebody who could benefit from a little stewardship and patience is really not such a terrible idea.

Next time you start to beat yourself up for all the things that aren’t working out or all the ways you’re falling short in your own eyes, try thinking about that puppy and what might be the best way to guide it back to the paper.

Susan Kitchens's picture

I "saw" Anne Lamott on...

I "saw" Anne Lamott on Sunday at the L.A. Times Festival of books. I wandered by the stage where she was speaking. Didn't stick too close to it, tho. (Had just come out of my 8th panel session in two days, and had overstuffed head and sore shoulders from schlepping my gear around UCLA for a coupla days.)

My companion and I found a patch of grass far away enough from the reach of the stage's loudspeakers where we could sit and just rest from it all. But one thing I heard her say in passing was along the lines of the shitty draft.... She doesn't wait for inspiration to write; it's more of a discipline of just doing it. (Or as my boyfriend calls it, "Just showing up"). That, combined with the gentle puppy back on paper thing you described, is rather powerful stuff (actually, I know about showing up on the page already, tho I've been a bit more be-ratey about it of late. So the puppy-puddle-paper thing is the more powerful. [look Ma! assonance!])

Glad to see that you've been picking up the pace of posts here after a slower time. :)




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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