Bird By Bird

Bird by Bird is one of my favorite books about the value of writing regularly. Anne Lamott weaves stories of her life with writing advice. Here are some of my favorite excerpts.

She said that sometimes she uses a formula when writing a short story, which goes ABDCE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending.

More thoughts on structure. That’s a pretty easy to remember sequence. Can this formula work for writing an article? A lot of nonfiction books are collections of short narratives.

Maybe I can practice this sequence with that formula.

Action: Me writing furiously in various Dunkin Donuts through three months.

Background: Why am I trying to write? Why three months? Why Dunkin Donuts?

Development: Then I learn through repetition (aka hearing it on various podcasts) that writing is really in the thinking and organization.

Climax: Me thinking furiously in various Dunkin Donuts.

Ending: Glory. Riches. A few new Medium followers. And a realization that all three of these are the same things.

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend.

Once you accept that perfection isn’t necessary, you’ll start shipping. I’m not sure about the idea that you should ship while you’re still embarrassed. It’s good to apply to an entire product that you’ll iterate on. But it’s not like each of these posts will be read multiple times by individuals. I’ve got one shot in a lot of cases.

That said, I’ve been posting plenty of things that I’m embarrassed about looking back. But I listened to a podcast with Seth Godin and they talk about people who look at things and are embarrassed when looking back and those that are happy with it and don’t dwell.

If I didn’t write something for fear that I’d look back on it and shake my head at how bad it is, I wouldn’t write at all.

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

I’m experiencing this right now. After getting over the initial inertia, thinking through different systems, setting those systems up, struggling to learn the proper length to aim for in a day, and plenty of other hiccups, it’s starting to be very rewarding.

I used to look forward to the coffee in the morning. Queue. Action. Reward. Now I look forward to the writing. It’s become the reward.

(I still like the coffee too.)

“Do it every day for a while,” my father kept saying. “Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.”

I’ve been doing this every day. I don’t think it qualifies for “a while” yet. I don’t know yet what would be the writing equivalent of scales. Maybe writing a page under the same template each day. It is a prearrangement with myself. It does feel rewarding to honor a commitment I made to myself. And I’m appreciating the feeling of finishing. With each post and eventually with the collective whole of 100 posts.

A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

I’m too slow to get to the down draft and too often that’s as far as I get. Hopefully focusing on writing one thing each day will encourage me to get to the up draft and then the third draft.

I went to the dentist this week. It’s been six years and luckily1 I had no cavities. There was a portion where I had no idea what was going on but the dentist would poke around and call out numbers. I asked and they were checking the separation between the tooth and gum based on how deep the instrument could go in. Anyway, each check was a little painful but sometimes it’s good to do that thorough check to find out where things might be breaking down.

There’s some other design or career analogy here. Oh yeah it’s about upkeep. Dental hygiene is made up of daily routines. You can’t floss for an hour at the end of the month to make up for things. You can ignore your daily routine then go to the dentist and get cavities filled, but it’s not the same as if you were just following the proper routine daily.

  1. Note for the up draft: miraculously might be the better word here. ↩︎