Monday, July 12, 2010

One Step at a Time

Sometimes for me, and other writer-friends I've talked to, the hardest part of being a writer is actually writing. Sitting down and starting. Putting words to the page. And this seems like a silly problem to have because, as writer, words should just naturally just flow from my fingertips, creating something worthy of being read by someone other than just my mother (who loves everything I write. Love you Mom!). But it's not that simple.

The problem is that I only see the big picture at first sometimes. I see the whole of what I’m trying to, thinking that I need to get it all out in one fell swoop. It’s paralyzing, and before I know it I’m overwhelmed by what I'm trying to do that I just can't do anything.

A few years ago, a teacher turned me on to a book by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird that details some instructions on writing and life. In it the author tells this story:

During a family vacation one year Lamott’s brother was sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by binders full of different types of birds and all things bird related. He had been assigned a report on birds and was given three months to work on it. As people are oft to do when procrastination takes over, he left it until the night before. But as he sat there, the entire report before him, he began to well up with the realization of just how much there was to do. Then his dad came over, put his arm around him and said, "Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird." This is great advice and actually works in practice. Don't like at the big picture. Look at small steps on the way to the big picture and before you know it, you've got all your birds lined up on a telephone wire. The big picture creates itself when you're not looking, while you're just getting words out in the hopes that it all works together.

Another (one more of many) piece of awfully helpful advice Bird by Bird lends out is the idea of "shitty first drafts." In fact, the author devotes an entire chapter to it. To sum it up, she basically says just write, it might (read: probably will) suck and parts of it to all of it will be of little to no use in the final draft but it's there. Just get something on the page. Anything. Even it's just a stream of conscious to later be cleaned up, revised, polished and produced. It's a starting point. Like in Monopoly, you can't buy a hotel on Park Place. if you never leave go. Nor can you ever collect your $200 dollars. Just write. Write a shitty first draft. It's ok. So now I do. If I'm feeling overwhelmed (as I usually am) at starting a writing project or lost or not sure of how to begin, I just start putting words down. Often it doesn't even make sense but it's there. It exists and with that, I can jump in and push through. After I exhaust my writing muscles, I go back in, clean up the messy parts and produce something that flows and hopefully entertains.

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