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.

MY FAVORITE BOOKS ON WRITING

I go back every once in a while and reread the books that have always rewarded me with inspiration and encouragement. Especially now as I’m completing my book and can almost see a glimmer of light flickering at the end of the tunnel, I find I need that boost, the reassurance my work is not crap and I’m not totally delusional to think I can write.

Here are three books that jump-started my writing life and have a prominent place in my bookcase. Each time I revisit them I discover surprises I had missed before, remember old truisms now imbedded in my writing DNA and realize again the warm support as if each author is an old friend who knows me well, warts and all, and still believes I can succeed.

Natalie Goldberg. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life was the first book I read about actually being a writer. I remember learning about the book in a short article in a woman’s magazine back in the ‘80’s. I went to Barbara’s Bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois, bought the book and immediately devoured it. Later I also bought Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg’s first book. But Wild Mind remains my first love. Goldberg tells the novice to lose control while writing, letting the wild mind take over, ignoring the “critic” or “editor” in one’s head. She details the life of a writer, gives permission to indulge in one’s passions for writing and gives exercises at the end of the chapters to prime the pump.

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life showcases Lamott’s irreverent and awesome writing style while bringing the craft of writing into a comfort zone that anyone can attain. It’s one of the few books on writing that chokes me when I read some parts. And then she coins the phase, “shitty first draft,” which I have written plenty.  

Julia Cameron. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity was my bible in the ‘90’s although I never could complete all the exercises she recommends doing to free oneself to be more creative. Although not a book centered on the writing process per se, it gave me permission to spend less time on housework and more time chasing after my muse. Cameron had a book signing in Borders Book store in White Flint Mall in Rockville, MD where a woman in the audience raised her hand. I was sure she was not a plant since she had a toddler by her side and a newborn in a carriage. She said Cameron’s book helped her get an article published. I went home and reread the book probably for the forth time but, alas, I still could not complete all those exercises.

Learning to write is an ongoing process. In future posts I will share other books that have taught and inspired me over the years.

On another note:

I was so happy to read on the AJN blog about two writing workshops for nurses.

Lastly, a plug to nurses who might live in or near New York City and who want to do more writing about their experiences, to develop a more sustainable writing practice. There’s a writing weekend for nurses cosponsored by the Center for Health Media and Policy at Hunter College and the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing coming up July 20–22, and it’s taught by some fantastic people. Also, we’d be remiss not to mention an upcoming weekend writing workshop (August 11–12) taught by AJN‘s clinical managing editor (and a marvelous scholar and poet) Karen Roush in Briarcliff, NY.

 

I hope more writing workshops open in the future for nurses in other locations around the country. But, in the meantime, check out the books I mentioned above and just start writing.

What are your favorite books on writing?