Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Quiet Down!

Welcome to our book talk on Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, the perfect literary companion. Today, we'll be discussing the chapter on first drafts. We welcome all comments whether you've read the chapter or not.

Human Growth and Development was a required course for prospective teachers when I went back to school in my thirties. My sons were early teens by that time, so I used them as reference points. Ah yes, I would say to myself as I read about psycho-social development, that explains Matt to a T. And when I learned that teenagers grow from the hinter regions inward, I understood why Geoff tripped over his feet so often. They were enormous!

Here's something else I remembered learning about brain development in teenagers. It seems they have an invisible audience following them everywhere they go. The audience is not kind. They hurl insults like rotten tomatoes. Every flaw is held up for ridicule. Every step is questioned. Every word, well, every misspoken word is seared into long-term memory with a branding iron of contempt. The professor claimed this was all part of normal brain development.

In Anne Lamott's chapter--stay with me, now--"S****y First Drafts," I read about her "voices" with rapt attention. After all, my invisible audience still resides in my head, badmouthing every word I commit to the page. Either my brain hasn't developed beyond adolescence, or I've made it too comfortable for the invisible audience to stay. They show no signs of leaving soon. Or maybe, just maybe, the development specialists got it wrong. Those voices stay with us for a life-time.

Anne's too practical to send them off. Too much energy expended for that battle. No, she suggests ways to quiet them:

Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar...

Obviously, Anne never used a killing jar for an insect collection. My throat tightened just reading the words. This image did NOT quiet voices, but my heart rate when aerobic. After some experimentation, however, I discovered that a simple speech and a pat on my back was all I needed to soften the voices, something like this:

Lucky for you no one is ever going to see what you write today, Patti. You're framing an idea, something you can pretty up tomorrow or the next day. You won't write War and Peace in the time you have, but you'll write a small piece of something that has the potential to grow in beauty. Your job today is to have fun, lots and lots of fun. Now, put your heinie in the chair and start typing.

Here's your chance to address your snarky, invisible audience. Write out a speech in the comment section to quiet their voices, or comment on Anne's take of the first draft, what some of us call the sloppy copy. I confess, the myth of the author sitting down and writing flawlessly in one draft kept me from considering myself a writer for a long, long time. Oh, the wasted years. Was there anything else in this chapter that jumped out at you? We'll move onto perfectionism on the 18th, a topic I invented.


BK said...

I've wasted a lot of time pursuing perfectionism with my writing. It still dogs me (I still have only submitted my one and only manuscript once--that's partly owing to the fact that I want to get another manuscript under my belt, but also a LOT owing to the fact that I STILL want to tweak it--it still doesn't have that "BIG" story feel I want for it yet.

Paralyzing fears and perfectionism have kept me from producing. But this year I found the simplest (yet hardest) way to shut up the voices. I'm done talking to them. I just slam the door in their faces by setting a high word count goal (one beyond my comfort zone) that I am duty bound to meet, and write, write, write. It worked for me in January and I got 50K down.

I write VERY messy first drafts. I put the 'rough' in rough draft. That's why I don't submit anything to my crit group for months on end. I do not allow others to meddle in my first draft. I have a confusing enough time dealing with my own big dreaming and scheming as I write a first draft.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Dear Internal Editor,

Such a pity you missed today's writing session. It was very productive. Perhaps you should have gotten up earlier. Like me.

C'est la vie


BK said...

This deviates a bit from the purpose of today's post, but I wonder if people who wrote big stories, ala Tolstoy's War & Peace, went at the process any differently then those of us who write more commercially.

Too bad I can't sit down and interview that guy. I'd love to know. I'd love to know how you get a handle on big.

Lori Benton said...

Ha. I totally relate to this, Patti. My usual speech to quiet the anxiety voices--that's what mine sound like, not so much condemning as whining and frightened--as I'm heading for the computer at about 8:30am each morning goes something like this:

"All I have to do today is make a pass over this roughed out scene. Just one pass. Doesn't matter how polished it gets. You'll do another pass tomorrow. Just do this one now. That's your one inch window for today. It'll be FUN. EXCITING. You get to play in a pool of words and there's no rules and anything could happen."

Bird by Bird made a huge impression on me a couple years ago. :) The great thing is is that I almost always get sucked in and much more work happens than just that one pass.

l said...

I contracted those voices halfway through my teenage years as a writer. Most often, they took the form of my characters, griping and whining about the way the story was going.

I finally learned to silence them last year. I refuse to argue, and if they get really bad, I turn on loud music with words. Preferably hard Christian rock. Listening to music forces me to focus so hard on my story, and not be distracted by the music, that it drives out all other distractions. Silly, perhaps, but it works.

Maybe those two acceptances last year helped too. ;)

Heidi said...

The myth of the perfect first draft originally convinced me that I wasn't nearly as good of a writer as any one else. That I could never achieve what they did. Now, I can ignore that voice, and reassure myself that I have many future drafts to improve my writing.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I know the mocking voice(s) well.

One thing works well for me. Have you seen The Passion of the Christ. I think of the scene and Jesus in the Garden. I think of the lies He's being told and then I do what He did. I mentally stomp on the snake.

Love this image. Praise God for giving it to me.

And with my first drafts, they will be what they'll be. Always room for improvement--even with published books.
~ Wendy

Patti Hill said...

Good morning, all! You're moving about much earlier than I.

BK: Brilliant! Keep your mind too busy to yammer at you. I'll have to try that.

Ariel: Your invisible audience sleeps in? What a great discovery! When I want to make swift progress on a project, I set the alarm for 4:00 AM. It's amazing what I can get done.

BK: Consistently, when I read about books that are, as you describe, big stories, the authors talk about five drafts or more--and years rather than months of writing.

Lori: Not only is your speech effective, but you've trained your creative mind to click on at a certain time each day. Wonderful.

Heather: Definitely, drowning the voices with loud music works for some. The trick is to keep at it until you find what does work for you.

Heidi: Confidence is a plus! I like the image of turning your back on the voices.

Wendy: Yes! Stomping on the lying snake is a perfect image. Thanks for reminding me.

BK said...

Patti, that "years" worth of writing thing is why I don't feel any rush toward publication.

The fun is in the challenge--do I have it in me to write the big one. Guess we'll find out (eventually). 8-)

Anonymous said...

Ariel, I love your note to your internal editor. C'est la vie. Oui!

Wendy, I love the image, loved the movie.

Patti Hill said...

BK: No rush is the mindset to have. We may find this revolution in the publishing world gives art a chance. We can hope.

Marian said...

After reading this chapter about first drafts, I've changed my whole approach to writing. I was sitting here listening to all the voices and rewriting every sentence as it came out, after it came out, after I put it down, and again before I could move on. Very stiffling. Now I'll just let myself be creative and skim out the crud later...much later.

I feel liberated.

Patti Hill said...

Marian: We've all been there! So glad you've been set free!

Anonymous said...

Here's some raw honesty for you: the voices in my head are quite different ones, although still so debilitating I gave up writing for a lot of years. Mine gave too much praise.

I grew up as "the writer kid" in a town populated by sporting heroes. I was always top of the English class, I won a few competitions, I had a reputation round school as a top writer. Fine, huh?

The trouble, though, was that I had no idea how to deal with writing stuff that wasn't good. I never wrote more than one draft, never rewrote anything. I wrote more than one competition-winning story simply by pecking it out in half an hour and sending it off.

But then the bad stories come. Sometimes after half an hour on the computer writing something the voices tell me is brilliant I re-read it in a week and it's average at best. I felt like a failure, like God's anointing had left me, that I was worthless as a much of my identity was caught up in my being a "good writer".

If this sounds like the whine of a poor little rich kid then I'm sorry...I'm just being honest here. It took a lot of years to discover the words DRAFT and REWRITE. I still struggle to silence the voices that tell me how great my work is - I guess I just try to ignore them now, and make sure I always give it a week or so to settle before I submit.

A successful musician friend once said to me that she'd been told the reason she was so successful was that she lacked the natural talent of some of her classmates (!!!). She'd had to work twice as hard to achieve what they did naturally - and that work ethic paid off. She has achieved much more than many of them because of the hours of practice (re-doing) she needed to do.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I just say, "Hey, jerk. Yeah, I'm talkin' to you. Be quiet. You are the one who stinks. You are the one who is sub-par. You are the don't exist. You aren't real. Why am I wasting my time?" Then I smile, nibble a little dark chocolate or eat a little popcorn (with a spoon ala my good friend) and click away!

Oh...and a prayer for the Holy Spirit's guidance is also a very good thing :).

Dina Sleiman said...

I'm reading this with you now and enjoying it very much. But, I don't think I could just stare at a blank page everyday and wrestle with demons. I studied writing in college and learned not to do that. My writing process is different. I do a lot of prewriting in my head. I think of it as letting things simmer until they boil over. Once they boil over, the writing just flows. And I've learned tricks for getting it to flow as well, like taking a walk or bike ride and letting my mind wander. The thoughts and voices and images sort of swirl around and then start forming into something coherent.

Heather Marsten said...

No, I am the perfectionism inventor, I spent most of my life holding up every aspect of it in comparison to others, trying hard to be perfect, and failing miserably.

My speech: This is a rough draft, not a perfect one. We will clean it up by stages and flesh it out. Just get the thoughts down and they can be moved around. Rome wasn't built in a day. (cliche I know, but still true). Then I tell my inward critics they will have their chance later to help me improve the sloppy copy.


Niki Turner said...

Hi Patti!
I downloaded "Bird By Bird" onto my Kindle after I saw some of your posts. I've laughed out loud at least once in every chapter. I'm echoing it as a recommended read.

I loved the mouse in the jar imagery, I just used little imaginary people instead. My mother, telling me my writing is good. BUT. My creative writing teacher scribbling "purple prose" on my first college assignment. The contest judge who commented and judged without reading the rest of the entry. Etc.

BTW, Wendy's "stomp the snake" is really, really good!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Dina, I once described it to a friend as a "pressure cooker". Once the correct pressure is worked up it explodes.

My friend (a math teacher) said, "Huh. Sounds messy."

Kathleen Popa said...

Very interesting what I read this morning in my devotional, Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young:

"I love you for who you are, not for what you do. Many voices vie for control of your mind, especially when you sit in silence. You must learn to discern what is My voice and what is not. Ask My Spirit to give you this discernment. Many of My children run around in circles, trying to obey the various voices directing their lives. This results in fragmented, frustrating patterns of living. Do not fall into this trap. Walk closely with Me each moment, listening for My directives and enjoying My Companionship. Refuse to let other voices tie you up in knots. My sheep know my voice and follow Me wherever I lead."

Dina Sleiman said...

Kathleen, my husband and I are doing that devotional too. Also, Wednesday night on Top Model they did an acting exercise about their inner critics. They had to draw the voices in their head and then face them.

Susie, I like your comment on the Holy Spirit too. I try to be led by the spirit in my writing, and I have a class about that subject on my website. I'm so enjoying all the people in this blog community.

Footprints From the Bible by Cynthia Davis said...

I like Kathleen's quote "I love you for who you are, not for what you do..." When those voices get really nasty, I have to take time to crawl into the Father's lap and hear Him say, "keep going, Beloved.'

Kathleen Popa said...

Dina, how funny that stuff keeps popping up about those voices in our heads.

Cynthia, absolutely keep going. See today's (Friday's) post. March forth!