Monday, July 18, 2011

The Writer as the Cheese

Welcome to the continuing conversation on Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Sure, the book has been around for a while, but when have you had a chance to chat it up with fellow writers? This is your chance. No need to read the chapter, although it’s fabulous. You’re professionals. Speak up. We learn so much from you.

The book is organized in five parts, and we’re starting the second part today: The Writing Frame of Mind. My husband would consider this a bit scary. He’s been an observer of my frame of mind for several decades, and, well, he often has to ask, “Are we talking about one of your characters now?”

We storytellers are gifted with a certain set of proclivities, some more finely tuned than others. But there is good news: Those proclivities can be sharpened and refined. And that’s what we’ll be talking about today, the chapter titled, “Looking Around.”

My husband claims to be free of the whimsy gene. Where I see a woman strutting like a hen, he sees only a field of gray smudge. When driving down the highway, I’ll ask, “Did you see that?”


“Sorry, it wasn’t ESPN.”

“Oh. Then no, I didn’t see anything.”

Out comes the notebook and I write all about the runaway steer being chased by a cowboy on horseback. Before you think my husband a dolt, he diagnoses lawn diseases at twenty paces. The man’s a genius.

We’re writers. We should be the most observant people around. That’s how we learn about the world and how it works. That’s what Lamott is proposing in this chapter. There are so many quotables in this chapter that I will comment on several.

The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell” standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes.

Lamott isn’t saying to remove yourself from life. Where would we get angst for our stories? Heavens no, she is saying that it’s all there for the taking. Pay attention. Keep something handy to write on or tip-tap on. See the world as your library. You’re always learning, always gathering.

Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others…I am learning slowly to bring my crazy pinball-machine mind back to this place of friendly detachment toward myself, so I can look out at the world and see all those other things with respect.

Lamott’s theory is this: If you can’t be compassionate about your humanness, how will you portray your characters compassionately, and then how will your readers relate? Who knew being a writer required so much internal work, but it does. It really, really does.

Just as I was gaining the interest of an agent and a publisher, I ruptured a disk in my neck. For 15 months, I lay as motionless as possible to reduce the pain until the docs agreed what was going on. In the meantime, I learned quite a bit about myself, and it was shocking. Pain flays you open and there I was, the real Patti. I had to avert my eyes at times, but then I took pity on the girl and saw that she was doing the best she could. Not coincidentally, I learned quite a bit about God and his compassion too. That blip in my schedule made me a better writer by forcing me to know the real Patti and like her. If I were you, I would skip the spinal cord injury part and make peace with who you are. You’re wonderful! God thinks so. And take notes!

This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of –please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds…I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world—present and in awe.

A trip to Africa will do this, so can a trip to the grocery store or out to the garden. Making observations and writing them down will train you to be present and to see the world around you with wonder. Your readers will join you. Here are six things I saw anew today:

  • Are the hummingbird vines being stingy, or are they awaiting some clarion call?
  • Two grim-faced sparrows wait inside the birdhouse for lunch to be delivered.
  • Grocery shoppers lean into their duty, pointing the way with their noses to dinner. Something easy and exquisite, hopefully.
  • The woman read the label with such reverence, I expected her to clench the jar of Prego to her heart.
  • The sofa cushion smiles with use.
  • Nasturtiums the size of lunch plates nod in the breeze.
It doesn’t hurt to have a two-year-old around, either.

How are you as an observer? Are you compassionate with yourself? Do you agree this is necessary to be a good storyteller? I can think of some counterexamples in literature, but I like the idea of giving myself room to grow. And you? Do you see things others miss? How do you cue yourself to be stay in the present? How do you realize compassion for your characters, even the stinkers?


Anonymous said...

I love watching people. I try my hardest to be inconspicuous. However, that is sometimes an utter failure. Endless stories are at our disposal if we will just see the people who are around us.

My idea journal goes with me everywhere. Favorite people watching spots are church, grocery stores, hospitals and coffee shops. Although, just the other day, I realized that the zoo is a great place, too.

Anonymous said...

As always, Patti, your post is wry and insightful.

Sorry to say that I had to go to Wikipedia to find out how to play Farmer in the Dell.

Solitary cheese can be the best, especially for a writer. . .

Patti Hill said...

Susie: One of the tragedies of airport security is that we can't just go and watch. Next time you travel someplace, be prepared! Oh, libraries and bus stations are good too.

Anonymous: I remember playing Farmer in the Dell on the playground--freezing cold--hoping to be the cheese. Now, I'm make being the cheese a living.

Thanks for coming out so early this morning!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Couldn't agree more! Love this post.

I finally fell in love with writing again when I woke up to the world around me, the broken and the blessings of it all. And all of it can be ugly at times.

It's finding grace in the ugly that makes a story come alive sometimes.

Beautiful, important post.
Tweeting it.
~ Wendy

Patti Hill said...

Wendy: "It's finding grace in the ugly..." Oh yes.

Marian said...

I always want to know why people are doing what they are doing. I can't get the "why" by watching. I have to ask questions.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Jesus died for the stinkers too....especially. We're all stinkers. That's where my compassion comes from.
"How do you cue yourself to be stay in the present?" Still haven't figured this out. Ideas welcome...
I drive my child crazy verbalising all the things I see and the conversations I would have with the people I observe. There should be a support group for the families of writers.

Kathleen Popa said...

"This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of –please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds…I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world—present and in awe."

Oh, yes. This is exactly right.

Thank you for this, Patti. I've returned to journaling for the very reasons you've so beautifully expressed here.

Patti Hill said...

Marian: The "why" is the fun part. That's what we get to make up. We should all be a little nuts in this department. Go crazy! You can be sane later.

Henrietta: Definitely, we are compassionate because we have received compassion. As for staying in the present, I find this difficult too. No kidding, you may have to plan time to be in the present. Just a few minutes until it becomes a habit.

Katy: You do this. You write in such a way as to evoke wonder.

Debra E. Marvin said...

You remind me I need to slow down. I haven't seen the sofa smile in awhile.