Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Power of
Parental Focus

'I used to not be able to write if there was a dish in the sink. Then I had a child, and now I can write if there's a corpse in the sink.'
--the writer Anne Lamott, quoted in a documentary about her life. You can review our many prior mentions of the gifted one here.


At 6:32 PM, Blogger Kass said...

Did you drag that picture from the sidebar on my blog? She is my favorite author. I attended a workshop where she spoke and it was hilarious and stimulating. 'Bird by Bird' should be read by everyone, not just writers.

At 7:14 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

She's a favorite for lots of folks, Kass. That's for sure. I've lost count of how many times we've mentioned her here (probably around a dozen now). And I'm glad you got to see her speak, because that's a special treat. If you get a chance to see that documentary about her, take it. And you make a good point that I hadn't thought about: she should be read by everyone, not just we scribblers.

At 6:06 AM, Blogger Elisabeth said...

Bird by bird is one of the best books on writing I've read.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed by anything Anne Lamott's words come back to me - the reference to the title of this book.

Her young brother had a problem with an assignment on birds. He didn't know where to start and his father stopped by his desk and said, 'Bird by bird, Buddy. Bird by bird.'

The other thought from this book that stays with me and that I also find useful is the idea that when you write you are like a person driving along at night in a car. You can only see as far ahead as the illumination of your front head lights will allow. You write into this light, not beyond because you cannot see beyond.

It's another way of saying one step at a time or bird by bird, but it has such a visual sense for me that whenever I find myself thinking too far ahead I try to imagine my car rolling along a country road under a dark canopy of trees.

The arc of light that illuminates only a short area in front of me is deeply comforting. I need do no more than write within this small cone of light and leave what's ahead in darkness to the future for the time ahead when I get there and my headlights illuminate it in turn.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

As usual I've never heard of her. I've never heard of anyone. She sounds like the wirter's Erma Bombeck. Her I've heard of but never read. I used to get one of my previous wives to read her books and summarise them for me. I miss that particular wife. Shame her taste in literature wasn't a bit more highbrow.

At 11:01 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think I've proved that I can write if there's a corpse in the sink: after all, I wrote and completed a major new piece of music (premiered last weekend in Madison) during a couple of months of pure hell focused around driving out to Connecticut to help out my dying favorite uncle, and my aunt who has Alzheimer's and as a result has become extremely mean and verbally abusive. I wrote and finished my piece through the relapse of chronic illness brought on by the stress of the CT trip, and everything else that has happened in its wake, most of which was not very nice.

And I'm starting a new piece, even life is no better and I still feel like crap.

When you gotta write, you gotta write.

P.S. "Bird by Bird" is on my shelf of books about writing, essays on writing by poets and writers, and memoirs: all that meta-writing stuff. It's a good book in that I like her attitude and her forthrightness. (I have more than one Erma Bombeck book on my humor shelves; I grew up reading her column. My favorite comment of Erma's remains "the grass is always greener over the septic tank," which isn't a bad rule for life.) My own innate approach and style tends to resonate more with Jane Hirshfield's "Nine Gates," but it's good to have more than one book with more than one approach.

At 11:06 AM, Blogger Kass said...

Just picking up from Elisabeth's comment (which was so interesting and well-put) - the illumination thing - about having a light in front of you as you write - reminds me of a quote from 'Dr. Zhivago.' Pasternak talks about consciousness being a light which should be directed outward. " lights up the way ahead of us so that we don't stumble. It's like the headlights on a locomotive - turn them inward and you have a crash." I think this is an important thing to remember when we are writing. If we interject our own agenda (which I have done many a time when trying to beat a personally sacred topic to death), we crash - maybe in terms wide audience appeal - or in terms of paralyzing our efforts because we get entrenched in our agenda and lose heart (artistically).

At 11:12 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I love the lively conversation that's been bubbling on without me. Elisabeth did indeed have some resonant reactions to Lamott, who I'm glad to learn has fans as far away as Australia. I had to chuckle a bit over Jim's mentioning that he doesn't know her work, since I recall you saying that same thing about an earlier mention of her, Jim.

If memory serves, Anne's point about only being able to see as far ahead of you as the headlights can illuminate, when used in the writing context is about having faith that even though you can't see the finish line, you'll get there if you keep at it. Like so much else she has to say, she inspires courage and dedication to the craft by saying things in ways that stick in the memory.

At 6:15 PM, Blogger Diane Vogel Ferri said...

I am a big fan too. I've heard her speak a few years ago in Cleveland and she was as good at speaking as writing. She 's a most quotable writer!! Thanks for the reminder, I think it's time to read Bird by Bird again.

At 6:17 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Now that you mention it, that book really is worth rereading every 2-3 years. Thanks for stopping by, Diane.


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