The subtitle to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is Some Instructions on Writing and Life. For me, that subtitle almost but not quite gets to what I most admire about her book.
Because I don’t actually think that it’s what Lamott has to say about the craft of writing that make her book so distinctive. Perhaps this is because she’s a fiction writer and I’m not, but the advice she offers about character and plot and so on seem fairly routine to me. And I’m just not at a point anymore where I’m looking for advice about life—I’ve got that covered, thanks.
But what Lamott does brilliantly, it seems to me, is to give us a window into a writer’s life, to show us how to make writing part of what we do. Indeed, the advice she offers about how to get started writing, how to keep writing, and how to get restarted when you inevitably fall off the tracks—that’s some of the best advice I’ve ever encountered about the writing trade.
So here’s how I suggest you approach her book: Read it quickly and with pleasure. Mark passages that make you laugh or that strike you as smart. What’s most important in the book comes at its very beginning, from the introduction through the section on “shitty first drafts.” After page 27, though, if a chapter starts to bore you, move on to the next one. The book isn’t structured as an argument so much as a series of tips, so you can skip around in it pretty freely.
And that’s what I’d like you to look for in writing your first response—a bit of advice that makes particularly good sense to you. Take us to a brief, specific passage in Bird by Bird that you find especially useful or funny or compelling. (The only rule is that this passage must come from somewhere after page 27.) Retype the passage into your post, and then write a paragraph or two in which you tell us how you plan to incorporate what Lamott has to say into your work as a writer.
Length, format, and deadline
My guess is that the length of most posts in response to this assignment will be about 250 to 500 words. We will use your comments to begin our conversation about Lamott in class next Wednesday, 9/08, so you must post your work to this site by 11:00 AM that same day. If you possibly can, please scan through the comments posted by your classmates before we meet that evening.
R assignments are meant to be brief and informal, but I will expect them to be carefully copy-edited.
- Click on “Add New Post” to submit your post. Do not simply leave a comment to this post. They’re hard to format and read.
- The title for your post should begin with “R1:”—and then a brief title of your own should follow the colon.
- The category for your post should be “R assignments.”
- You can add any tags to your post that you like.
Have fun! I look forward to learning what you make of Bird by Bird!
Please describe a past experience or event, something that’s happened to you, as exactly and evocatively as you can. Try to recreate the event in a way that makes your readers feel like they are experiencing it along with you.
What you write does not have to be a complete essay. In fact, you may find it easier to imagine this as a section of or a scene from a longer piece. You also don’t have to interpret the event you describe. Your task for the moment is to render or evoke it.
The event you write about does not have to have been especially dramatic or life-altering. It may simply be something that sticks in your memory, for whatever reason—a trip, a conversation, an evening with friends or family. The one thing that you do need to be sure of, though, with this piece and all the others you write for this class, is that you write about something that you are willing to share, to make public—because the odds that we will discuss your piece in class next week are actually fairly high (probably about 1 in 5).
If you feel stuck for a subject, you may want to look at the pieces by Lopez, Marcus, Orr, or Van Meter in Best American Essays 2009. All of them do a strong job of evoking a personal experience.
Length, format, deadlines
I anticipate that most responses to X assignments will run about 500 to 1000 words. If it turns out that your writing runs longer, that’s fine. If you write something much shorter than 500 words, make sure that the quality of your piece offsets its brevity. While the writing you do for X assignments is meant to be exploratory, I will expect you to compose these pieces with thought and imagination and to edit them with care.
Please email your piece to me as a Word (.docx) attachment. Use this formula to title your document:
Deadline: Tues, 9/07, at 11:00 AM.
Posted by Joe Harris
Fastwrite about a positive experience you’ve had with writing.
What is creative nonfiction?
Some current examples from The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town, 8/30/2010
- Approach or perspective
Plan of Semester
- Writing groups
- Responses (Rs) and Exercises (Xs)
- Revisions and Projects
Working Habits of Professional Writers
- Write regularly
- Share your work in progress
For next week
- X1: Past experience or event, due Tues, 9/07 (see separate post)
- R1: Lamott, Bird by Bird, due Wed, 9/08 (see separate post)
- Set up writing schedule (5x/week)
- Set up Dropbox account
- Register for this site
- Punctuality and deadlines
Fastwrite: What do you need to know from me now about this course?
Moment of Zen
“Brian’s Novel,” from Family Guy