Last week, I finally read Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott. It’s ridiculous that it’s taken me this long to get to it. I might as well admit that I only read On Writing by Stephen King in my second year of college. Oops.
Bird By Bird is an advice/philosophy/warning book for writers, and it was delightful – coarser than I expected, funnier, more honest and incisive. Some of the instructive portions were old hat for people who’ve done their research, but you can always use a quick reminder. Then there were the warnings: writing is hard, and you need the right worldview and motivation to do it right or it’ll drive you crazy. Like I said, old hat – even if you haven’t done your research, writing has probably worked some screws loose in your brain every once in a while.
But, very early on, Lamott made an inconspicuous comment: “One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.”
The concept of writing having gifts isn’t really one that I’ve noticed authors talking about. I’ve always heard them saying that it won’t be easy. I’ve sometimes heard them talk about the satisfaction of progress made, or the reward of writing a story well: you put in work for fifteen years and somewhere down the line, you have a poem or two you don’t hate, or a few checks from stories you sold.
I couldn’t say I’ve ever heard a writer talk about the gifts of writing, which are not the same things as rewards. Rewards are earned; gifts are freely given for arbitrary reasons. Lamott’s words put me in a strange frame of mind – a tad emotional, even. Have I been grateful for writing enough? Not for the things I write, but for the gifts that writing gives me even before I type “Chapter One” into my text document?
The answer is, “Defs not.” Gratitude grows in humans like flowers in the Atacama.
So, in the interest of mindfulness, cultivating a thankful spirit, and list-making, here is my list, my Top Five Gifts That Writing Gives Me, with some significant help from Anne Lamott.
1. excuses to do cool stuff
There is nothing I love more than going into my local library to look up something really weird. A few weeks back, I grabbed half the section on radioactivity. (Newsflash: none of the books dished on X-Men-style mutations.) More recently, I had some difficulties finding books about the history of Romania. Books about crematorium practices and death rituals around the world have become something of an annual search for me.
On my internet browser, I have a folder labeled “Writing.” In it are pages like, “How To Poison Your Character,” “Cults of the Greek states,” “Death and dying in medieval and modern Europe,” “meanings and origins of number phrases,” “science-fiction technology terms,” “endangered animals of Germany.” I have an entire folder for my southern gothic paranormal story that’s just a bunch of Atlas Obscura pages for Alabama.
One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. (Lamott, xii)
I haven’t been many places physically for the sake of writing, but it’s on my list when I save up the gas money. (Those Atlas Obscura pages aren’t just for reference; I fully plan on seeing the Tree That Owns Itself soon.) The point, I think, is experience, for the simple reason that the world is big, and there’s absolutely no reason not to see as much of it as you can. If you’re interested in the world outside yourself, which you probably are if you’re writing, then why not go see it? Writing is your passport to go sit in a cemetery and take headstone rubbings, to visit that weirdly specific museum a few towns over, to talk to someone whose “backstory” deserves to be heard. And you never have to feel weird about it, because everything you experience goes into the melting pot which is “writing.”
This leads to the next gift, which is…
2. humility + selflessness
Another [gift] is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around. (xii)
Writing gives you a free pass to explore and learn about and empathize with the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the undervalued, the strangely beautiful. We live in an old and tightly-packed world, and we can only ever know the teensiest little bit of it. But if you want to write, then you have every reason – and every need, as an Ethical Storyteller – to find out just a teensy bit more. Widen your horizons and you might write more humbly; the more voices you hear, the less impressive your own gets. Which is always a good thing.
Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.
And yeah, this is totally still a gift, as much as character development is ever a gift. It might not feel like it, but it is. (You’re pretty happy when you put your own characters through the blender, aren’t you? Hypocrite.) What’s not a gift about this writing thing that gently nudges you to be better than you were the day before, more selfless, more generous towards others?
3. ritual + work
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. (xxvi)
Work is a gift!
One of the best things about finishing Bitter Magic (talked about here) was that the act of writing – the harmony of mental and physical productivity – became… fun. Even when I knew that what I was writing wasn’t particularly good, I often liked it, because… I was writing. I was working at something that I cared about. The book of James in the Bible has that verse about faith being dead without works; that verse can be twisted to say pretty disheartening things about Christian faith, but the spirit of it suits my writing life well: when I care about something – when I let myself care about something – so much that I just have to write it, regardless of showing my own failings and foibles? That’s good work, and the opportunity to do good work is a gift.
4. a place in the Grand Scheme
In this dark and wounded society, writing can give you the pleasures of the woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your nest and say, “This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong.” And the niche may be small and dark, but at last you will finally know what you are doing. (234)
If you get published, or even if you don’t, you’ll never be able to know how long your words last, how many people whose lives you touch with the narratives inside your brain. Maybe you’ll see hundreds of people cheer for you at some major convention; maybe you’ll have one five-star review on Goodreads claiming your poetry changed the reader’s life; maybe the most you’ll ever know about your impact is having a friend say, “Yeah, it was better than some fanfic I read.”
But when you have the writing bug for real, knowing the grand sum of your reach is, I’m relieved to say because its impossibleness, not necessary. It’d be nice, sure, but, at your core, you don’t write to know you made a difference. “Making a difference” is the reason you might give people who ask more than one question about your writing life these days. It’s not the real reason, though. You write because you do, because you’re supposed to, and maybe the only person you ever knowingly impact is yourself. That’s fine; that’s one whole person.
It’s a gift to be able to fit yourself snugly into a space on the great gameboard of life and say, “This is where I go.” It gives you a touchstone. Of course, it probably shouldn’t be the only one, or even the main one. Maybe you have a faith, and a relationship or two, which come first. Writing is still a gift; it makes my life, at least, better, knowing that I know what I’m supposed to do, on the days when I’m not sure why I’ve been put here at all.
5. fun ! ! !
Writing, for me, is like a jigsaw puzzle. And I freaking love jigsaw puzzles. Not only do I get to worry over pieces fitting together just so, and not only do I get to organize how I do each puzzle just the right way to suit the particular size, weight, and vibe of the picture, I get to choose the picture myself – even color in some of the more unique portions!
I love prewriting. I love the brainstorming, the physical shapes and positions I twist myself into as some knotty problem slowly unravels to reveal something fantastic, exciting, intriguing, disturbing, heartbreaking – in other words, something fun. And I’ve already mentioned that, when I’m in the right headspace, I love writing, too, putting all my theoretical formulas and hypotheses into practice, letting the characters gasp awake and promptly ruin all my plans by making them better. I even love editing: paper freshly warm from the printer, the aroma of ink, the pens and notebooks and endless tinkering. It’s the heady feeling of being better at storytelling than the past version of myself, aka the slob who presented the literary equivalent of a greasy old pizza box that I’m reworking with spit and panache into the hecking Mona Lisa.
It’s fun. It’s not everybody’s type of fun, but it’s mine. And having fun is one of the best gifts of all.*
If you think writing is what you were made to do, there are bountiful reasons to work hard, to know that good writing doesn’t come easy or soon, to remember that your truest, most lasting motivations are easily obscured by the prospect of fame or intellectual vanity or maybe impressing the cute guy ahead of you in the Starbucks line. There are plenty of reasons to remember that writing is hard.
We can be grateful for the hurdles to jump, but that’s hard in and of itself. It’s nice to remind ourselves, once in a while, of the sweet, easy things that writing gives us, graciously ignoring, for now, our frittery motivations du jour, our issues with time commitment, and the fact that we like talking about writing more than we think we like writing.
I think we all know, in our heads, that storytelling is a give and take operation. But we have to remember to take, not just to give – or to think about giving until it depresses us and we move on to scrolling through Netflix without ever actually watching anything because commitment is scary.
Things can be nice. Writing can be nice! We, as a little subculture, need to rethink our relentless onslaught of doomsday messages, warning ourselves and the ones who come after that we might write some good stuff but we’re not gonna like it. Think of what we have in writing! Think about what we have, not only what we give, and write with gratitude in mind!
* Which is why I believe that adults should still, if they so choose, have birthday parties. Come on, guys. Why snatch one more joy away from us as we enter an increasingly alienating, joy-parched world? Just go out with some friends and wear a party hat and let them give you a present or two. It’s not the end of the world.