With winter now behind us, April breathes promises of milder temperatures and new life. Focusing on a container-based garden this year, I’ve already planned (and replanned) it several times! Do you enjoy gardening? What memories of new life does spring bring back to you?
After months of peering through frosted glass, I now enjoy a clear view of the street below my office window, where I often buy newspapers to break up the solitude of freelancing. With welcome sunlight streaming in, I enjoy another busy month of writing and editing your “marcom” materials.
In last month’s issue, I featured Elizabeth Gilbert’s and Seth Godin’s insights on managing artistic productivity through the vicissitudes of creative fears, failures and triumphs. Thank you to those of you who wrote to tell me that you found their insights valuable. . . . And I hope, as spring progresses, to return to less complex topics (and thus, shorter articles). However, giving credence to issues like the nature of creative work and of business, a statement of “10 Easy Steps” won’t suffice!
This month I’ll visit highlights of American writer Anne Lamott’s memoir and guidebook on how to write creatively; I’ll feature Dave Burdeniuk, who is an expert on communicating well when one has a disability; in “Word Nerd’s Corner, I’ll share a usage tip from American etymologist Bryan Garner; and I’ll update you on sundries in the usual “Shop News.”
Enjoy this issue and happy mid-April!
Principal, Elizabeth Shih Communications
Thoughts and Tips on Writing from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)
When talking with a veteran local editor recently, I was reminded of how interdisciplinary different forms of writing can be. Freelance copywriters and journalists might pen short stories, novels or memoirs–and not always or only for publication (although that’s now commonplace)–but to fulfill their own interests and to explore the writing process.
Does the freelance writer or editor whom you work with read widely on how to think and write better? I certainly do, and regularly so, from artists as diverse as Julia Cameron (e.g. The Artists’ Way) to Seth Godin to Anne Lamott.
Different kinds of writing (academic, journalism, literary and others) have overlapping characteristics and processes. So for a change of pace this month, I give a precis of Anne Lamott’s 1994 memoir and guidebook, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. While Lamott’s “instructions” are oriented to would-be poets and novelists, her ideas apply equally to writers of other disciplines and genres.
First, here are five paragraphs of her most insightful comments on thinking about and writing creative prose:
“Write about your childhoods . . . . that time in your life when you were so intensely interested in the world, when your powers of observation were at their most acute, when you felt things so deeply. Exploring and understanding your childhood will give you the ability to empathize, and that understanding and empathy will teach you to write with intelligence and insight and compassion.
Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight . . . you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize . . . [the] truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of. . . .
Write straight toward the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. . . . . Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this . . . . truth is always subversive (225-226 her emphasis).
Most writers “are not going to be published in big magazines or by big presses. They are not going to . . . be David Letterman’s best friend . . . . They don’t believe that [even] if they got these things they’d probably end up even more mentally ill and full of stress and self-doubt than they already are. . . . I still think they should write with everything they have, daily if possible, and for the rest of their lives. . . .
To participate requires self-discipline and trust and courage, because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, . . . . How alive am I willing to be? . . . . Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul . . . . It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship” (236-237 her emphasis).
These potent words have stayed with me, as have the following humorous and insightful strategies that Lamott shares to help us to create or write better:
(1) You don’t need to be a great writer to write. She says that while some students are brilliant, “some of them aren’t really fast and don’t write all that well, but they still love good writing, and they just want to write. And I say, ‘Hey! That is good enough for me, Come on down’” (xxix her emphasis).
But nonetheless, she tells her students “that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that they ought to write anyway. . . .Writers do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment . . . . But sometimes [they] . . . feel better and more alive than they do at any other time.” (xxix-xxxi).
(2) Start with your childhood. Record your memories through every year at school, to give yourself a repository of material.
(3) Observe the world with a kind of respect and “reverence,” “a presence and openness to the world . . . . There is ecstasy in paying attention” (99-100). To be “engrossed by something outside ourselves [as observer, writer and reader] is a powerful antidote for the rational mind” (102).
(4) Write with what Lamott calls a “moral point-of-view,” an awareness that in this chaotic, bleak world, “there is still a good part that hasn’t been corrupted and destroyed, that we can tap into and reclaim . . . . When [an] . . . ordinary character . . . finds that place within where he or she is still capable of courage and goodness . . . . This is what makes it a book we will foist on our friends . . . remember . . . [and] that will accompany us through life” (106).
(5) When it comes to the writing itself, follow a routine and practice: “Sit down at approximately the same time every day . . . . Train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. . . . and . . . try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.”
(6) Persist in quieting the voices in your head by using a ritual to start each time of writing. Lamott says that this mental exercise given to her by a hypnotist is helpful, and I have found it so, in my own preparations to write non-fiction articles:
“Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and rop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. . . . And so on. . . . Then put the lid on and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass . . . imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the . . . voices. Then turn it all the way down and . . . [l]eave it down, and get back” to your draft (27).
(7) Start with short assignments, so that each time you sit and write, all you have to do is “write down as much as [you] can see through a one-inch picture frame” (17)—one small scene, one memory, one exchange. Don’t get ahead of yourself or be intimidated by what may lie ahead: “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” (18).
Here Lamott explains the title of her book, explaining that as a child, her brother procrastinated on writing a report on birds due in school the next day: “he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by . . . unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him . . . and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’” (19). How’s that for a great comment on the creative process?
(8) Allow yourself to write a garbagey first draft (Lamott uses another term that my spam filters won’t allow). All good writers start with very messy first drafts. No one types “fully formed passages” quickly (21). It may feel like you’re “pulling teeth,” but the only way to get anything to start with is to keep going. No one else will see it. You must give up all perfectionist impulses if you are going to get anywhere.
Never try to clean up too early, or you’ll lose valuable “clutter.” Lamott says you must learn to keep yourself “compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage” (31).
(9) You will have to write passages or pieces of your larger goal in order to learn “what you aren’t writing, and this is helping you to find out what you are writing” (9).
(10) And, later, when you’ve drafted and redrafted and revised and know “that your manuscript is still not perfect and you’d hoped for so much more, but . . . you also know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that’s the very best you can do for now –well? I think this means that you are done” (94).
(11) Let a valued friend or reader read your manuscript, once you’ve drafted and revised it, to “help you get rid of the twists in the plot that are never going to work no matter how hard you try” (58).
Often a writer “flails around . . . on the way to finding a plot and structure that work” (85). You may use an outline but will still have to cut and reshape. You may have to write a reverse outline or even a plot treatment” to explain what you mean to say, especially if your draft is “like a house with no foundation, no support beams” (86).
(12) Reclaim your sensitivity and awareness of your intuition, what tells you what to do when you’re unsure of character’s actions or plot developments. Much of life, especially in childhood, she says, forces us to distrust or ignore that voice. You must “get it back,” in order to write well (from the unconscious).
(13) If it matters enough to you, persist, because “for some of us books are as important as almost anything else on earth . . . . Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave . . . . [T]hey show us how to live and die.” And they show us lyrical language, and how to pay attention to the world around us.
Lamott argues that the reality today (even more so than in 1994, when she wrote the book) is that the world’s sky has “already fallen,” so her interest is in how we can take care of one another, what insights we have on doing so, how we can “make [others] laugh about it. For some of us, good books and beautiful writing are the ultimate solace . . . . So write about the things that are important to you . . . . Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it” and you will be read (109).
Many of these insights are helpful to non-fiction writers, journalists and copywriters, as well as to poets, novelists and short story writers.
For insights like these, for her poignant anedcotes, evocative style and refreshing humour, Lamott’s Bird by Bird, deserves to be read. I recommend it highly.
How conscious can you become about your life and experiences, when you sit down to write? How do you open your unconscious in the creative process?
What aspect of your writing requires you to step “bird by bird,” to complete the project?
Which of Lamott’s “instructions” do you find most valuable for your writing?
Nerd Alert! Word Nerd Corner: A Usage Tip from Bryan Garner . . .
In a recent blog posting, American etymologist Bryan Garner explained how to use the term “just deserts.” Garner notes that the term, which means “the treatment one deserves,” is “occasionally misrendered ‘just desserts.’ Sometimes, of course, it’s a playful pun . . . . But sometimes it’s sloppiness or pure ignorance — e.g. ‘The deliciously wicked Francis Urquhart gets his just desserts [read “just deserts”] in this third installment of the story’ (“Best Bets,” Commercial Appeal (Memphis, 21 Feb. 1997, E2).
Garner notes that in the above example, “the adverb ‘deliciously’ creates a nonsensical echo in the word ‘desserts.'”
This mistake is one that I’ve made many times in the past. It’s good to know what the correct version is, despite my susceptibility to chocolate and cake!
(Please send me your linguistic and grammatical “bugbears,” or your jokes and quotations on writing through the “contact” page at www.elizabethshih.com. Next month, more “wordsmithing” from Bryan Garner: Stay tuned!)
From an Expert…
Who: Dave Burdeniuk, media relations director, SaskEnergy
Where: Regina, SK
What: How to cope with a significant disability and still communicate well . . . .
This month, I want to provide a different perspective on writing and success than those shared in earlier issues.
In the January 21st issue of Saskatoon “Bridges,” journalist Ashley Martin profiled Dave Burdeniuk, who has had a highly sucessful career in journalism, communications, and media relations–this despite his enduring Retinosa Pigmentosa, a progressive deterioration of the retinas that causes blindness.
You may remember the story that was featured in Saskatoon in “Bridges”: I found it moving and inspiring.
At 50 years of age, after holding successful posts in journalism, politics (as press secretary to former Premier Roy Romanow) and communications, Burdeniuk has lost “one-third” of his vision “in the past year” and notes that “Things will fade to black probably fairly quickly.”
As the director of media relations for SaskEnergy, Burdeniuk is still required to perform publicly, such as communicating information to reporters and fielding their questions. Martin writes: “He can rattle off technical jargon and numbers as though he were reading from a script. But he’s not. He memorizes everything.”
Along with his wife, Randa, Burdeniuk has invented ways to adapt, including scouting out news conference locations, memoring content for press releases and reports and more, to avoid making mistakes, like tripping and falling over furniture.
Randa comments that the disease is “not the focus of [Burdeniuk’s] entire life, but it is something we’ve had to deal with all his life so as things have changed, then we’ve had to become more open about some of those changes.”
Years ago, he met terrible discrimination, citing one news director who said he “never would have hired” Burdeniuk if he’d known he “couldn’t drive at night,” or another who worried only how Burdeniuk’s vision loss would drain the company insurance plan.
The CNIB cites that 836,000 Canadians have significant vision loss. But the “employment rate for working-age, visually impaired people is only 25 percent” (Martin). What a tremendous loss to our workforce and community.
Burdeniuk has garnered the admiration of colleagues and CEOS alike, taken on regular challenges, which he loves (including zip-lining!) and maintained a sense of humour, that “disarm[s] people’s discomfort”: “‘If I’m talking to a potted plant it’s probably because I think it’s a spiky-haired summer student,” he jokes.
Burdeniuk says that “You have to keep pushing yourself, otherwise it can take over you and everything becomes unsafe and everything becomes scary.” He strives now to be sure to take in cherished sights, like his wife’s face and the colours of a prairie sunset, knowing that one day he will no longer see them.
A sign of his courage and tremendous vitality, Burdeniuk says he hopes to “live a long time [and with] a strong memory” to recall what the world around him looks like.
(Special thanks to Ashley Martin for her article, which appeared in Saskatoon in “Bridges,” after original publication in the Regina Leader-Post.
Do you have a disability or personal or career related circumstance, that affects your approach to your work?
How do you manage that circumstance or condition, so that you can continue to work or create?
In mid-March, I enjoyed the seminar on branding in communications by Brent Banda of Banda Marketing Group, Inc., through the Raj Manek Business Mentorship Program. Banda held proteges’ rapt attention with his “hands-on” discussion of the complexity of branding in business.
Elsewhere, I was fortified by hearing more from some fellow freelance writers on diverse approaches to non-fiction, business, creative and academic writing, at my Freelancers’ Roundtable meeting. Special thanks to Ashleigh Mattern and Julie Barnes for their invigorating words and book recommendations.
Thanks once again to mentor extraordinaire, Monica Kreuger (Founder/CEO of Praxis School of Entrepreneurship and President of Global Infobrokers), who stokes the flames of my creative strategies in business.
Business Counsellor Lori Jestin-Knaus of Women Entrepreneurs of SK continues to lead great discussions in the organization’s “Mentoring Circle.” And she too provides valuable counselling that gets women in business moving forward. Thank you, Lori!
I was also delighted and grateful to receive a response from an undergraduate English professor of mine, from years gone by–the brilliant biographer and historian, Bob Calder. Bob was one of the pioneers of Saskatoon’s “Word on the Street” festival and continues to thrive as a writer in “retirement.”
About Us . . .
Since 2011, Elizabeth Shih Communications has provided B2B marketing and communications services on the Prairies and across Canada.
Do you need help writing your “marcom” materials? Please contact me through my website, via the CASL-compliant email form, on each page at www.elizabethshih.com.
Once I have received your permission, I’ll be delighted to discuss projects with you!
I help small- and medium-sized businesses create e-newsletters and related communication that secure good clients. Please visit my website for more information (www.elizabethshih.com).