Overwhelmed? Try Taking it “Bird by Bird”

Posted by Emma Raupp, Poetry Reader for 8.1

Writing only seems simple. Each day we casually compose texts, tweets, posts, and reviews but as soon as we’re expected to break out our professional writer’s voice for an assignment, the pressure is on. Despite my experience writing papers for high school and college, I still find myself staring at a blank Word document, struck by the need to write something brilliant, but terribly unsure of where to begin. I can see a fuzzy mental image of all the brilliant points I want to make; however, I’m so overwhelmed by my ambitions that I’m having trouble materializing it. The confidence I’ve carefully curated over the years evaporates, leaving lackluster doubt where my words should be. Sound familiar? Well, read on.

A kind professor recently lent me her copy of Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, which addresses the obstacle of writer’s anxiety, among others. You may find her first tidbit of advice frustrating: Just write. But it’s true! Douse your self-doubt with an approach closer to free writing, gradually developing your sense of direction. The bare bones of a “shitty first draft” (a term Lamott lovingly coined) is closer to completion than ten pages of anxious outlining. She credits her friend with another title for first drafts: the “down” draft — because you just get it down. The second, third, and possibly fourth drafts are the “up” drafts — because you fix them up. Release the slew of raw material first, then work at refining it.

Give yourself permission to write poorly. Otherwise, your writing will sound cramped and oversaturated with intention. Don’t worry, no one besides you will see the shitty first draft, unless you want them to. Most writers’ anxiety isn’t about the act of writing itself; it’s the purpose of the assignment that stresses us out. If you’re not familiar with the type or style of writing expected of you, starting might evoke anxiety. Audience looms over us, too: if you’ve gotten bad feedback on your writing in the past, you might be scared to submit yourself to criticism again. Conversely, if you’ve received good feedback, you may feel increased pressure to fulfill the expectations set by previous writing assignments.

When we’re desperate for a place to start, Lamott suggests taking it ‘bird by bird’, or piece by piece. There are a few helpful allegories for this, like Anne’s one-inch picture frame, where she challenges herself to a short assignment, writing just one-inch at a time. E.L. Doctorow compares writing to driving a car at night: “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way”. Lamott responds to this quote in her book, writing: “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard” (18). Don’t get ahead of yourself about where this assignment will go. Follow your beam, your voice (sometimes bright and often dim) as it is, grounded in the present moment. After you’ve given yourself permission to write freely (and poorly), you’ve provided yourself with enough material to form the trajectory of your piece in revision.

Lamott also warns against the unreasonable finitude of ‘perfect’ first drafts, writing: “Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground– you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get” (28-29). When we write with unfair expectations for ourselves (perfection being the most unfair of them all), the result sounds artificial and forced. Bird by Bird helped me understand that good writing is developed from the vague framework of shitty first drafts, then endlessly reworked in revision: not miraculously discovered like buried mental treasure. Like any good artist, you’ll never be completely satisfied with the way it turns out. Alas, this is another testament to the hard work of writing: committing yourself (again and again and again) to chiseling an un-promised diamond from the rough. As it turns out, quite a few authors turn out shitty first drafts, but as dedicated revisionists, they’ve developed the skill to polish until it shines. Good writing only looks easy. Value the process over the product. If you obsess over the finished product too soon, your greatest success might be contained to your daydreams.

As writers and artists, we need creative fodder like Lamott’s shitty first draft in order to tease out what we’re trying to say. Just like reading, it wouldn’t be very fun to write if everything came to us without effort on our part to understand it. Another important habit Anne Lamott recommends, for life and in writing, is being kind to yourself. Writing requires an active, evolving understanding of the self, so become friends with yourself as a writer. If you can’t quiet the criticisms in your head (don’t judge me, we all have them), make an effort to amplify the compassionate voice. Convince yourself you are good and keep reminding yourself as you write. Bashing your writing (and by extension, yourself) every other sentence will only make you more frustrated. Writing reveals to us the craft of language, but also the craft of the innermost self. What do you have to say, in the specific way only you could say it? What’s holding you back? Don’t fall into an (over)think trap– writing your way out will help you get your assignments done on time and understand a little bit more about yourself in the process.

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