Writing advice: Anne Lamott and Toni Morrison

This past Saturday, I watched Anne Lamott on a webinar sponsored by Book Passage. She spoke from her home for three hours, sharing her wisdom on writing.

She shared titles of books that might help with writing:

She shared books that gave her confidence that she could write using their structures, multiple points of view, etc:

She shared many tips, some from other writers. She told her us that we can use all that she shared. She cautioned, however, to give credit to the original source of her advice when appropriate. For example, E. L. Doctorow said: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” In other words, Anne stressed, that we should start to write in short increments. We don’t need to have the whole picture before we begin.

She shared the following writing tips:

  1. Stop NOT Writing.
  2. Don’t be pressured to write well. Write badly. ( remember in Bird by Bird, Anne coined: write a shitty first draft?)
  3. Trust you are loaded with stories to be told.
  4. Don’t try to “think” the story—just be available and let it happen.
  5. If you feel blocked, just write about it.
  6. Don’t tell us—start with the action. Describe. It’s a movie behind your eyes.
  7. Don’t force humor.
  8. If you are too close to the story, pretend you are Margaret Mead studying the aboriginal tribes.
  9. Tape record dialogue. Edit when it’s played back.
  10. Spend the most time at the beginning of your work paying attention to structure.

 

In closing, Anne instructed us to google writing advice from various writers.

Here is a shorten version of an article in Lit Hub written by Emily Temple, August 6, 2019. I “sifted through her interviews and speeches to find out what she thinks about writing.”

Temple has highlighted some of her (Toni’s) wisdom below:

“You Don’t Know Anything.” And Other Writing Advice from Toni Morrison

I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.

By Emily Temple

August 6, 2019

I can’t think of another writer who is quite so universally beloved as Toni Morrison. Her work is magnificent, her legacy is unimpeachable, and she reveals her brilliance at every opportunity. She also taught for many years at Princeton, and I think it’s safe to assume she knows a thing or two about nurturing young minds. So, using the relatively flimsy excuse of her birthday—Morrison turns 88 on Monday, which is also Presidents’ Day (is this a sign?)—I sifted through her interviews and speeches to find out what she thinks about writing. I’ve highlighted some of her wisdom below.

Write what you want to read.

I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.” It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing.

–from a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine

Figure out how you work best.

I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Use the world around you.

Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings . . . everything actual is an advantage when I am writing. It is like a menu, or a giant tool box, and I can pick and choose what I want. When I am not writing, or more important, when I have nothing on my mind for a book, then I see chaos, confusion, disorder.

–from a 2009 interview with Pam Houston in O Magazine

Let characters speak for themselves.

I try really hard, even if there’s a minor character, to hear their memorable lines. They really do float over your head when you’re writing them, like ghosts or living people. I don’t describe them very much, just broad strokes. You don’t know necessarily how tall they are, because I don’t want to force the reader into seeing what I see. It’s like listening to the radio as a kid. I had to help, as a listener, put in all of the details. It said “blue,” and I had to figure out what shade. Or if they said it was one way, I had to see it. It’s a participatory thing.

–from a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine

Be open.

It’s that being open—not scratching for it, not digging for it, not constructing something but being open to the situation and trusting that what you don’t know will be available to you. It is bigger than your overt consciousness or your intelligence or even your gifts; it is out there somewhere and you have to let it in.

–from a 2009 interview with Pam Houston in O Magazine

Don’t read your work out loud until it’s finished.

I don’t trust a performance. I could get a response that might make me think it was successful when it wasn’t at all. The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Don’t complain.

I think some aspects of writing can be taught. Obviously, you can’t expect to teach vision or talent. But you can help with comfort. . . . [Confidence] I can’t do much about. I’m very brutal about that. I just tell them: You have to do this, I don’t want to hear whining about how it’s so difficult. Oh, I don’t tolerate any of that because most of the people who’ve ever written are under enormous duress, myself being one them. So whining about how they can’t get it is ridiculous. What I can do very well is what I used to do, which is edit. I can follow their train of thought, see where their language is going, suggest other avenues. I can do that, and I can do that very well. I like to get in the manuscript.

–from a 1998 interview with Zia Jaffrey in Salon

Beware of overworking.

Those [paragraphs] that need reworking I do as long as I can. I mean I’ve revised six times, seven times, thirteen times. But there’s a line between revision and fretting, just working it to death. It is important to know when you are fretting it; when you are fretting it because it is not working, it needs to be scrapped.

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Embrace failure.

As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s rewriting and editing.

With physical failures like liver, kidneys, heart, something else has to be done, something fixable that’s not in one’s own hands. But if it’s in your hands, then you have to pay very close attention to it, rather than get depressed or unnerved or feel ashamed. None of that is useful. It’s as though you’re in a laboratory and you’re working on an experiment with chemicals or with rats, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mix. You don’t throw up your hands and run out of the lab. What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it. If you think of [writing] simply as information, you can get closer to success.

–from a 2014 interview with NEA Arts Magazine

Learn how to read—and critique—your own work.

People say, I write for myself, and it sounds so awful and so narcissistic, but in a sense if you know how to read your own work—that is, with the necessary critical distance—it makes you a better writer and editor. When I teach creative writing, I always speak about how you have to learn how to read your work; I don’t mean enjoy it because you wrote it. I mean, go away from it, and read it as though it is the first time you’ve ever seen it. Critique it that way. Don’t get all involved in your thrilling sentences and all that . . .

–from a 1993 interview with Elissa Schappell in The Paris Review

Seek holiness.

What I’m going to say is going to sound so pompous, but I think an artist, whether it’s a painter or a writer, it’s almost holy. There’s something about the vision, the wisdom. You can be a nobody, but seeing that way, it’s holy, it’s godlike. It’s above the normal life and perception of all of us, normally. You step up. And as long as you’re up there, even if you’re a terrible person—especially if you’re a terrible person—you see things that come together, and shake you, or move you, or clarify something for you that outside of your art you would not have known. It really is a vision above, or beyond.

–from a 2017 interview with Granta

 

Emily Temple

Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.

https://www.emilytemple.net/

One day before this was published, Toni Morrison died from pneumonia.

Best Tips for Writing in the Time of a Pandemic

I found the best advice for writing in the time of Covid-19 in BREVITY’S Nonfiction Blog, Wednesday March 18, 2020. Written by Brenda Ridley

I am reblogging here:

 

 

Ten Tips for Writing While Quarantined

by Dinty W. Moore

by Brenda Ridley

Assuming that you are up and about during the COVID-19 pandemic, you could view this period of social distancing as an unexpected gift to your writing life. That’s the attitude I’ve adopted as I decide how to use my time while exiled from my job for two weeks.

Last week, Pennsylvania’s governor ordered schools state-wide closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The small independent school where I double as admissions coordinator and office manager complied. While the risk to our students of COVID-19 exposure is probably low, we could not in good conscience remain open while 99% of the schools in Philadelphia shut down. Ours is a very small school but, luckily, one with digital resources that teachers can use for online instruction. Most of my work time is spent on the phone, making sure that teachers have the resources they need, the office runs smoothly, and performing first aid in the absence of a school nurse. I have some online tools that I can use, but only a couple projects that I think I can finish at home. That leaves some open time periods during the day that I don’t usually have for writing. Here is my plan for writing while quarantined with some suggestions that you might find helpful:

1) Keep a schedule. It is so tempting to sleep in when you get up before six o’clock every weekday morning and now don’t have to. But if you don’t set up a schedule for the week, you’ll wonder where the time went and why that essay you started three months ago still isn’t finished. I’ll set my alarm for 7 a.m. and plan to start writing at 9, after exercise, breakfast, and kitty time. I have better focus in the morning, but you should create a schedule that works for you; just schedule your writing time no matter what.

2) Limit socializing. Life as I’ve known it has temporarily shifted. Everything is closed: my yoga studio, the public library, my writing group is on hiatus, even my church is practicing social distancing. Of course you can call, text, or email friends and family, but don’t do it all day. Your pen or keyboard needs you to propel it. Block out a social hour or two when you can catch up and commiserate with everyone each day.

3) Reconnect with your partner, your kids, or your pets. I rush out of the house early on workdays and don’t usually come home until almost six. I see the kitties briefly when I feed them breakfast, but there’s no time for cuddles and chatfests. My partner is still asleep when I leave. While my schedule is more flexible I can carve out some time for canoodling when I’m not drifting off to sleep and muttering incoherently. Imagine the boost some quality time can give to our relationships.

4) Eat well and rest. I enjoy cooking but don’t like to spend all day at it. When home for the day I usually prep dinner early so that at dinner time there is less to do. Doing most of the work early in the day makes it more likely that you’ll eat better instead of grabbing fast food or ordering a pizza.  And set a reasonable bedtime that ensures you get enough sleep. A poorly-fed, sleep-deprived writer might produce something, but is it something you really want others to read?

5) Get outdoors at least every other day. There is plenty of evidence that walking outdoors, forest bathing, hiking and other activities make you feel better. My attitude improves considerably when I’ve returned from a brisk walk.

6) Turn off your television. Too much news is not a good thing, and a lot of conjecture by pundits and talk show hosts isn’t news. All of the chatter about COVID-19 is increasing people’s anxiety. If you must know what’s happening with the virus on a daily basis, choose one reliable news source and limit yourself to 30 minutes of “information” per day. Your nervous system will thank you.

7) Put your writing house in order. I know I have two weeks before I return to work or am told to stay at home a little longer. I’m a writing newbie and don’t have tons of projects to work on, but I have at least three essays I’ve not been able to finish. My modest goal is to finish at least one of them and to develop a strategy for completing the other two. If I stick to the schedule I’ve set for myself, I think I can accomplish what I’ve set out to do.

8) Read. No need to say more.

9) Stay open and flexible. COVID-19 has made a fast and furious impact on everyone I know, even though none of my friends or family members have contracted it. All of the twists and turns science is taking in order to get a handle on this virus require us to think about how what we do impacts someone else. Stay flexible enough to shift with the tide of events and follow the lead of experts who know what they are talking about.

10) Finally, breathe and write; breathe and write some more. I came to writing as a late bloomer but quickly found it to be a practice that I can pour almost any emotion into. Some of those scribbles are just for me, not an audience, but writing helps me to clarify my thoughts and emotions so that I can get the junk out of the way and focus on what I want to say. So, breathe and write your way through if you’re quarantined. Appreciate the gift you’ve been given.