Monday, January 17, 2011

Let's Talk Shop

At the genesis of my writing journey, I possessed a freshly inked degree in English Literature and a passion for story. I'm not sure what pushed me from simply reading novel-length stories to actually believing I could create one (it was probably the week before Christmas break or after a week of lunchroom duty), but several years before I quit teaching to write, I coyly perused the writing resources section at Barnes & Noble for a book on how to write a novel.

I started with a how-to book on mysteries, because I'd been playing with a cathartic storyline during my 20-minutes drive to and from school. Happily, I forgave that person and turned my attention toward contemporary women's fiction--my favorite read.

Only my husband knew I was tiptoeing along this path. I'd seen other teachers leave on sabbatical to write children's books and come back empty-handed and rather sheepish, so I kept mum and kept reading. It was very lonely. Singular. A bit strange, playing with characters and scenes while supposedly concentrating on cooking or driving or--sigh--a conversation.

The more I studied the craft of novel-writing, the more neurotic I became. So many balls to keep in the air! I needed nitty-gritty help from someone who balanced on the knife-edge of perfectionism like me.

I must have confessed my frustration to a stranger at the checkout, because someone suggested I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I loved her voice immediately. Finally, someone more anxious than me--but not much. Anne and I connected on a level that empowered me to face a blank computer screen day after day after day. I owe her.


In my dream life, Anne and I are sipping iced tea on a lanai overlooking Kealakekua Bay. Humpbacked whales are breaching offshore as yellow tangs do their synchronized swimming thing in the shallows. We hardly notice. It's all about the art. The breeze lifts the corners of our manuscripts as we talk shop. Well, she talks shop. I listen, trying to absorb everything she says.


This scene will not happen, but I have picked Bird by Bird up again. I really need to hear Anne's voice. I'm wondering if ten years of writing novels has changed how I will receive her wisdom. I'm wondering what I missed the first time around. And I'm hoping I have something to add. I might even disagree with her on certain points. And while I've recommended this book more than any other writing book, I've never actually discussed it with another writer.

How crazy is that?

Over the next few months, I'll be responding to what I read in Bird by Bird, and I hope you'll join the conversation, whether you choose to read the book again or not. Let's do it. Let's talk shop over Anne's book. Starting on January 31st, I'll be responding to something I've read in Bird by Bird when it's my turn to post. I'm not sure how far I'll get for that first time, maybe the intro and the first 20 pages.

I have 5 copies of Bird by Bird to give away! Be one of the first 5 to say you'd like to talk shop over Anne's book, and I'll send you a copy.

In the meantime, what great writing books have you read lately? I'm studying The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. I don't think I'll ever finish it. Dense. Very dense.

16 comments:

Wendy Paine Miller said...

How cool that you mentioned this book. I believe it was the impetus toward something pivital in my writing career.

I actually own two copies. One that floats around my house and one that is in my car. Carpool mom gets smarter that way.

~ Wendy

Heidi said...

I'd love a copy of Bird by Bird! I'm also reading Truby's Anatomy of Story, and I agree. He packs a ton of information into a short space. But I'm finding it helpful.

Cynthia Davis said...

A friend loaned me a copy of Bird by Bird when I was first starting my journey, but I have never gotten around to purchasing one for myself. I'd love to re-read it and share insights.

Susie M Finkbeiner said...

Oh! That book made me feel so much less crazy! I'm looking forward to "talking shop" (especially since your first post will be on my birthday...shameless plug).

Can I confess that I was a closet writer until just about 6 months ago? I thought it was pretentious for me to give myself that title. I'm no Steinbeck or Shakespeare. But since "coming out" (for lack of a better term) I have found so many kindreds and encouragers and eager readers!

Marian said...

If this book is as good as you say it is, I'm in for a discussion.

Patti Hill said...

Good morning, Wendy! I love it that you keep a writing book in your car. That's efficient! I do miss carpooling kids around town. The wait times were perfect for reading.

Heidi, Cynthia, and Marian: I need your snail-mail address. Click on the "contact" button on the Novel Matters blog to send your address to our gmail account. And I'll get those books out to you.

Susie: Yes! There is a perceived mania with the arts. Anne helped me feel more comfortable with God's design for me. This is going to be good.

I have two more books!

Jan Cline said...

I have to confess that I started to read this book very early in my writing adventure. I also have to confess I didn't get it. I never finished it and gave it away. I dont exactly remember why I didn't get it or maybe even like it then, but I think it's time to revisit this book I keep hearing about. Im ready for a good how to write book as I have been reading as much fiction as possible while on vacation. I'll be very interested to hear some discussion on Bird by Bird.

Patti Hill said...

Jan, Anne's voice and vocabulary and theology isn't for everybody, that's true. But she is brutally honest, something we all need. We don't all have to agree with her to learn from her about good fiction. If you would like a copy of the book, be sure to contact me using the "contact" button on the blog's homepage. Glad you'll be joining us, Jan.

Anonymous said...

I would love to win a copy of this book. Angela from Kentucky

Patti Hill said...

Anonymous: Click on contact to give me your mailing address. You're winner #4!

Heather said...

I heard a year or so ago that this was a good book, but never got around to picking it up. I'd like a copy! And I'd enjoy joining in the discussion about it too.

Patti Hill said...

You're in, Heather! And the winner of the last book. Click on our contact button to leave your snail mail address. Thanks for joining us. Of course, you don't have to read the book to enjoy the conversation. Anne will kick up some interesting topics for us. And besides writing, talking about writing is what we love to do.

I just bought another writing book because of the title--and my discount at B&N is still in effect--Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. Do I win a contest for owning the most writing books?

Ellen Staley said...

Bird by Bird was on my Christmas list! One of my children sent it to me. I haven't finished it yet but look forward to your upcoming posts about it.
Other books? I also started Stein on Writing, very helpful and have yet to peruse Bell's Plot and Structure that awaits on my side table.

Meg Moseley said...

I've read the book two or three times, and I still like to pick it up and dive in anywhere for a few minutes. Sometimes it does nothing for me; sometimes it gives me exactly what I need. I love her honesty. Stephen King's "On Writing" is another one like that.

I'm looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts on Bird by Bird, Patti.

Patti Hill said...

Thanks to all! This is going to be fun.

Marcia said...

NovelMatters is indirectly responsible for me finding and reading Bird by Bird.

A few months ago I followed the thread discussion on here to Eric Wilson's web site. He recommended Anne Lamott's book and another by Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I felt I learned a lot from both books.

Anne both exhilarated and discouraged me by revealing her own humanity while stamping out my unrealistic fantasies of what being a published author would be like. The honesty of you ladies on NovelMatters has mirrored her writings!

I'm looking forward to the discussion.