Things That Have Inspired Me Part 2: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott


One of my favourite books about writing is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

It’s full of cheering jokes and really useful advice from a startlingly honest writer. One of the best chapters is about how an editor’s rejection of a re-written manuscript sent her into complete mental meltdown. “Luckily, I was still drinking then,” she writes and I hoot at that line every time (no, I know alcoholism isn’t funny, but even so).

Anyway, although Lamott doesn’t mention freewriting as such, her recommendation of starting out with “shitty first drafts” is in very similar territory, because Anne Lamott knows all about the terrors of the blank page. Here’s her description of the writer sitting down to write:

“You turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again…and you try to quiet your mind so that you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind… They are the voices of anxiety, judgement, doom, guilt.”

This is where freewriting can really come into its own. By enforcing just one requirement, namely writing continuously for an agreed length of time, freewriting makes it possible to bypass these voices. What you write probably won’t be usable as it stands and it certainly won’t be perfect but it will be a start (a “shitty first draft”). It’s a triumph of creativity over negativity.

Anne Lamott passes on another suggestion for dealing with negative, inhibiting, critical inner voices. A hypnotist recommended to her that she imagined each of her inner voices as a speaking mouse. Then she was to imagine picking up each mouse by the tail and dropping it in a jar. Next, the lid goes on and the voices get turned right down to nothing by a volume control button. “Watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass,” says Lamott, “and get back to your shitty first draft”.

I recently had one of the most immovable writer’s blocks of my nearly eight years of fiction-writing. The cause? I taught creative writing at a university. All of a sudden I was an authority on writing! It froze me stiff, and every approach to the blank page was drowned out by voices telling me that unless I was a naturally and genuinely gifted writer I had no business claiming to be able to teach others. Without freewriting I’d have made no progress at all on my new novel that was straining to get into the light but punched back every time by the voices of perfectionism.

So it makes sense to separate writing into two processes. First there are the early, freewritten, drafts. This is where you do whatever it takes to create a permissive zone into which no judgement, no assessment, and no authority figures can gain access: it’s the playground, the sandpit, the colouring book. Then, with plenty of messy, generous, rubbishy writing you can invite back the critic, the editor, the one who knows about genre and structure and dialogue and plot and find the beginnings of a viable piece of writing. Then you edit. And you rewrite (and maybe you freewrite some more). Then edit again and eventually, after the third, tenth or hundredth draft, you’ll have something that retains the wildness and the “you-ness” of the first, free, “shitty” draft and it will be worth reading. It might even be publishable. But that’s another story.

Things That Have Inspired Me to Write, Part 1: Baking bread


I have a friend who runs a microbakery from home and this week I did a short course in sourdough baking with him.  We made ten different types of bread: white, wholemeal, with black olives, with sunflower and sesame seeds, round-loaves, long loaves, flat loaves, plaits, rolls and baguettes. One was studded with candied fruits, another was dimpled with tomatoes, but all were created from the humble mix of flour and water.

I brought home a tableful of bread to share and store.  It’s made me want to bake, of course, but surprisingly I came back full of enthusiasm (sorely lacking in these bleak January days) for the process of writing and the making of written forms.  As much as anything else it was the array of “things” he owned and used to make these edible creations that inspired me: the scrapers and scoops and brushes and bowls and boxes and baskets and tins and racks and the whole fragrant space of the kitchen warmed by the two ovens that were on all afternoon.

Coming back to my writing room, I have a child’s desire for felt-tip pens and coloured inks.  For card and rolls of that old printer paper with perforations at the side.  For big blank drawing books and coloured A4 sheets, even for scrapbooks of grainy grey sugar paper.  For pin-boards and postcards, and index cards in pastels colours.  For thick vanilla paper with flourishes embossed on it.

Notebooks are my usual diet and like the sliced bread of supermarkets they can usually satisfy, especially a certain brand of floppy black ones that has somehow got linked up with Hemingway and a European, expatriate glamour.  Now, after the messy dough and the flour-strewn countertop, I’m more interested in the sort of writing that comes from forgotten scraps of paper or cut-ups or splurges in a diary.  But I want order, too.  Thinking about the wooden handles of the dough-cutters, the gleaming, waist-high rack for cooling, and the steel peels that slide in the pizzas, I am craving box files and hanging files and pigeon-holes attached to the wall so that each individual idea has space to breathe.  I want boxes for card indexes and in-trays that slide and detach for bringing to a desk.  I want anything with drawers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, the experiences of shaping and kneading and weighing and combining ingredients calls up in me the primal desire for the making of image and line; character and story.  First to introduce a dry name and then add the bubbling ferment of incident, dilemma and crisis.  To mix together a stream of picture-words onto a white sheet of paper like pouring water into airy white flour.  Then to mix it all, with a pen or with the fingers on the keyboard, and leave it to rise in the dark warmth of my mind.  Next day, to lift up the cloth and shape it, ready for the final tempering by the heat of honest critique.  And to hope, hope that it grows and expands and splits its sides and becomes a thing of beauty, and sustenance.

The writer and the baker (using all the skill and equipment they can muster and cherish) both create new forms.  My appetite for words was renewed by the bread I baked in such an inspiring, creative place.

Freewriting is Surrealist!

Most creative writing guidebooks, even when they recommend freewriting (or whatever they call it) don’t mention its origin in Freud’s theories and Surrealist practice.  Knowing where it came from might enlarge the way we do it.  If freewriting is magic then going back to the origin might be where the magic is strongest.