Posted by Margrette Kurtz
The cafeteria in fifth grade was where I realized I was a mean girl. Yes, I was that girl in elementary school who somewhat viciously (and most certainly cattily) shared the reign over all the others with her similarly obnoxious best friend. We would mercilessly pick on the girls who brought lunches in brown paper bags; if you didn’t have a garish Lisa Frank lunch box with some insipid rainbow unicorn, you were scorned. If you brought sweets on a day my mom packed celery and peanut butter, you were destined to be fat and pimply. We would send girls away to sit with the socially awkward kids who didn’t even try to belong with us. In that lunchroom with the lingering smell of hot wet spaghetti and lukewarm chocolate milk, we were untouchable.
No one would have believed this of me. My teachers were sure that I was always as I was in class: shy, quiet, and very smart. My parents looked at me as the middle child, the peacemaker for her sisters, the unaggressive, compliant one. But the cafeteria was this oasis where I could exercise my right to be the bad kid for once. You know, I wish this story had a moral. I sort of wish someone had had enough and really confronted me and put me in my place. I want to wax poetic about the shining moment where my eyes opened to the wrong I was doing and I threw myself onto my knees, shamefully begging for understanding and forgiveness, but I can’t lie. Fifth grade lunches were the same mild cruelty every day. For some unknown reason (and I’m sure it wasn’t sudden maturity), it stopped mattering to some degree what you ate and how you packaged it once we got to sixth grade.
High school lunch was just a regular old affair where you opened your lunch (yes, I used a paper bag) and ate it while you talked about calculus tests and sales on jeans at American Eagle. College lunch is even more removed… sometimes I even eat by myself or on the go.
I want to take this girl that I was and explore the ins and outs of her character. When I started thinking about school lunches as Lamott wrote of them, I thought I wanted to express the pain and embarrassment the recipients of my wrath must have felt. I thought that’s what I was obligated to do, what I was supposed to do, perhaps to prove I was sorry, that I had grown… but when I started writing, that wasn’t what came out. You don’t get to choose the story. The story is already there, waiting for you to stop fighting it and write.
Posted by Lawson Kurtz
I thought that I had been taught how to write. I’ve learned grammatical structures. I’ve studied the styles of famous authors. I’ve read great examples of what my writing should be. I’ve practiced drafting essays, and stories, and poems. For years I learned, yet in all that time, not once did I realize that all my lessons had neglected a fundamental element of writing: observation.
In the chapter titled “Looking Around” Lamott writes, “Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.” It’s a painfully obvious statement. In order to write, one must have some understanding of the world. The only way to develop such understanding is through observation. What was not obvious, to me at least, was that I needed practice paying attention. There are very few things in life that can be done perfectly without practice. How then was I so arrogant to assume that I held the innate ability to see the world in its true entirety?
Reading the chapter served only to confirm my fears that I am indeed a naïve observer. I was the rational mind Lamott referred to when she wrote, “To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass–seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.” In contrast, Lamott describes her observation as a spiritual experience where “you see in everything the essence of holiness.” I cannot say that I have ever had such an experience, nor can I say definitively that I ever will. What I can do, however, is join Lamott in her practice of compassionate detachment, and hope to one day see the world that lies outside my bowels.
Posted by Janet Li
Sometimes, I just have a lot of stuff in my brain. I think as humans, we all do. Sometimes, the ideas floating around in my brain are so convoluted, that when I manage to get them partially down on paper, it turns out a little peculiar. I almost felt that Anne Lamott had personally seen my previous works of writing, whether private or public, and said to me, “I tell my students to write this down—that the dream must be vivid and continuous—because it is so crucial. Outside the classroom, you don’t get to sit next to your readers and explain little things you left out, or fill in details that would have made the action more interesting or believable. The material has got to work on its own, and the dream must be vivid and continuous. Think of your nightly dreams, how smoothly one scene slides into another… You mostly go along from scene to scene simply because it’s all so immediate and compelling.”
As a writer, I have always struggled with making the dream vivid and continuous. My dad used to say that when I wrote, it was almost as if the thoughts in my head were going faster than my typing or writing hands, so that I only got portions of those ideas down on paper. In fact, I think my writing, at least my first drafts, have resembled the feeling of trying to remember those specific details of a dream after you’ve woken up. Who was the person who led me to the secret hiding place behind the fireplace to escape the old man and why was the old man chasing after me? The fuzzy pieces of the dream are still there, but within the blink of an eye, all of the specifics are gone.
Anne Lamott’s advice for making that dream vivid and continuous is to find a friend to “bounce [my] material off of.” I suppose my most creative writings have found their way into some sort of journal, diary, or sketchpad. These are private writings; no one else has read them nor has anyone ever given me feedback, so I will never know whether my ideas are vivid and compel the reader to go from one scene to the next. The ideas are always flowing in my mind so that if I ever read one of those writings, even today, they will make sense to me. Hopefully, through writing groups and friend, I will be sure that the readers (anyone else than me) will understand all those thoughts in my brain that make sense to me.
Posted by Erica Lin
“Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up. Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT. I say don’t worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are, and be involved in their lives, and keep asking yourself, Now what happens? The development of relationship creates plot.”
This passage, in particular, captured my attention because I have approached creative writing in the exact manner that Lamott advises against. Frankly, I am a little embarrassed to admit it…and even more so, now that it has been captured indefinitely in electronic print. Having typed that last sentence, I can confess, with only the slightest bit of shame, that I am the worst type of writer. I am the type of writer—if you can even call me a writer after this revelation—that hates developing characters. It is no wonder why I approach writing backwards. It is my attempt at procrastination.
Maybe I should clarify. I don’t loathe the process of developing a character. It’s just that I don’t feel it when I describe the particular idiosyncrasies of the protagonist or antagonist. I don’t feel IT—that excited feeling I have when my creative expression has reached its peak and the deluge of words forming in my mind flow onto the keyboard at such speeds that all the sentences looklikethis. I feel it when I write about plot. I feel such passion towards the work itself that I seriously reconsider my current career plan as a pre-med student. Even now, while I write about writing about plot (Did I get that correctly?), I feel could just immerse myself in my laptop for days. After I have slaved over and perfected the climactic ending, I realize that I must return to the beginning. Grudgingly, I develop the characters.
After reading the above passage, I find myself intrigued by Lamott’s approach. I am a little hesitant to expand on a group of characters and let their personalities compel a story. Then, I recall her reference to Faulkner (Sutpen’s need to establish his own dynasty led to the brilliance that is Absalom, Absalom!—Thank you, Victor Strandberg). I imagine it’s similar to grocery shopping, where you buy ingredients before knowing exactly what you want to make. A good cook can make a heavenly meal with almost nothing. Surely, a good writer can create a work of art with only a pencil and paper.
Posted by Zeewan Lee
Lamott in her chapter titled Looking Around says the following:
“There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation…. Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that – the details, the nuance, what is. If you can start to look around, you will start to see. When what we see catches us off guard, and when we write it as realistically and openly as possible, it offers hope” (100-01).
A few years ago, when I sat down to write, I tried to come up with a topic that by itself was so grand and important that nobody could pass by without paying attention. But what I realized soon after was that the events that were of a great importance to me and wrote about – winning a trophy in a contest, earning good grades, babysitting my little brother for a full day without anyone’s help, even – did not impress or give joy to those who came across my writing. For one thing, what I considered as my most profound achievements turned out to be rather trivial to most grown-up’s. Even to my peers, winning a prize or a good grade was a banal topic. It took me quite a bit of time to learn that I need to write about small, ordinary things but with a new insight and utmost honesty in order to truly impress those who come across my writings.
Before reading Lamott’s Bird by Bird, even though I knew I had to write about ordinary things to be truly unique, I had merely been attempting to impose a meaning into what I was writing about. Meanwhile, I was too busy synthesizing meanings and overanalyzing to truly look. Lamott helped me realize meanings – genuine and insightful – can be found within the ordinary if I look close enough. From now on, I plan to look more intently and write about what I see with a sense of “compassionate detachment” (99) and “reverence” (99), because I want my writings to “offer hope” (101) both to others and to myself.
Posted by Rachel Revelle
“There is ecstasy in paying attention” (100). In paying attention to Anne Lamott’s stories and advice, I found myself paying attention to more and more around me. She says in the chapter “Looking Around” that, “in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent,” and to “think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world” (99). First of all these thoughts struck me as beautiful. What a noble task to look around you, be immersed by the world, and then partake in the task of communicating what you find. I would like to think that paying attention and being in awe are a part of my everyday conscience. Do I not see, hear, and respond to the things around me? Do I not have moments when I feel so blessed with my friends or my school that I am startled with the sensation? Perhaps these moments are not as frequent as I imagine.
Poised with the task of writing, however, I feel I must be inspired to say something of worth. Throughout this week that task opened my eyes in a way I was not expecting. Right after finishing Lamott’s book I went for a run and felt like the child she describes going, “Wow, wow! Look at that…” (100). Even as I sit here I am more aware of how I might describe the dust on my computer screen or the hallowed feeling of being surrounded by the portraits of legendary Duke figures in the Gothic Reading Room. Writing is a way to examine, refine, and express more fully the very thoughts running through our heads.
I hope to be able to portray the world meaningfully and with a sense of awe, and am thankful to Lamott for the lesson on paying attention. In order succeed, however, I will have to follow her other advice, repeated continuously, to sit down stubbornly and write. Filling my head with snippets from what I imagine to be a writer’s standpoint, while exhilarating, does nothing to communicate. Lamott tells us to “Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul” (99). I can satisfyingly identify with this sensation and I do so appreciate authors for this gift that they give. Such insights must have come from reverently paying attention. The real gift, though, is that they wrote it down for us.
Posted by Dayo Oshilaja
It took me a day and half to write these words. I don’t mean I sat at my computer for an actual day and a half. I mean that it took me one day and half of the next day to work up the courage and energy to write this piece. I have a love and hate relationship with the process of writing. Sometimes we are infatuated with each other, like an unholy addiction. I eat, dream, and sleep about writing. I toy with the idea of becoming a professional writer seeing myself poised as the much younger but no less talented protégé of the great Toni Morrison. I write endlessly and fervently laying out paragraph after paragraph and filling up page after page. And sometimes the words just desert me with no explanation at all, leaving me listless and unmotivated and days and weeks and months go by without me writing so much as a sentence.
I suppose this is why “Bird by Bird” resonates with me so much. I enjoy Lamott’s descriptions of a writer’s angst and see something of my own struggles with writing mirrored in her book. I particularly like her chapter entitled “Shitty First Drafts” which demonstrates just how difficult the writing process can be even for professional writers. But I think Lamott’s most helpful piece of advice is in the chapter entitled “Finding your own voice.” She offers up a very interesting description of why we write. She says that a writer’s job is to, “see what’s behind… [the door] to see the bleak, unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.” (198) Lamott continues by saying that this is impossible without finding, “your own true voice.” (198) Despite the many pieces and papers that I have written over the years, I don’t think that I have found my own true voice yet. But I know that this class will help me begin to develop one, as I attempt to form a more stable relationship with writing process. And hopefully, as I commit to writing every day, and as I write my responses and exercise pieces, I will be able to, “expose the un-exposed” in my own true voice. (198)
posted by Eriks Reks
When I sat down to write this reflection, I tried to find something really worth saying, something that would convey to my classmates that I could defeat anyone with my words. And, sadly, I sat there, looked dumbly at the blinking cursor, and realized that I would immediately fail no matter how hard I tried.
So I changed the passage that I originally found in bird by bird, and chose a new one that would apply nicely to this feeling of despondence. Lamott says, “Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believe in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly” (114). Writing, when I first thought of myself as a “writer,” was more-or-less about sounding like a cool Kerouac who could change the face of entire generations with amazing sentences, inspiration, and energy. After a while though, I came to terms with never become that writer. (Lamott recently reassured me of that.) Thus, in the mean time, I have learned to write for writing’s sake, and my own. Putting words on the page, or screen, is something we have to do if we want to call ourselves writers. Professor Harris’ challenge to write daily is vital to our existence. (I had a suggestion, but didn’t speak up. If anyone is interested, there is a website called One Page Per Day, which reminds you to write a page about anything daily. You can set it up to notify your email, and then login with a Google or Twitter account, throw five hundred words on the page, and be done for the day). Whether or not, what we write on any given day could be something great – it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we set out to write with confidence, a feeling of purpose that trumps any doubt. We write because we are writers, a self-proclaiming, chosen few.
Only when we are through with the writing can we truly say and admit, “Dammit, I suck at writing.” But then, if we want to continue and survive and call ourselves “writers,” we must start again.