The first book I ever read about writing was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I was in high school, just beginning to realize that writing was something I wanted my future self to do, and so I asked my aunt and uncle, both published authors, what books on the craft of writing they would recommend. Besides Bird by Bird, the other book they recommended was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and both of them proved to be tremendously helpful. I was prompted to pick up Bird by Bird again last night after a writer friend mentioned it in her e-mail, and read the first chapter before I went to bed. After coffee with my friend Matthew Paul Turner this morning where it came up again, I read another twenty pages over lunch, and plan to read the rest of it this week.
“Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader,” she writes near the beginning of the book, “and that is the real payoff.” The act of putting the words down on the page is the part we should value, the reason why we do it, she repeats over and over, not the end goal of possibly being published.
Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do-the actual act of writing-turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.
The problem that comes up over and over again is that [students in her writing class] want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get to where you want to be that way, I tell them. There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it. Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.
And for one last quote, she clearly articulates the reason she loves good writing. Why is it worth spending any time, expending any effort, on this activity?
Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life-wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.