Papa Ben and Anne Lamott Teach Me a Lesson

I find that part of the hardship of being a writer is knowing that much of what I write will be drivel. It seems that in order to get to the good stuff, we have to write some bad stuff first.

I have been reminded of this in recent days two-fold. First, when having dinner with my 92 year-old grandfather, who loves to write and has one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever known, he asked me if I’d ever read Anne Lamott’s guide to writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I told him that I had indeed read this book, considered by many to be a great place to start when first attempting to write creatively, a long time ago while in college. He then asked me if I remembered, pardoning his language, the chapter called “Shitty First Drafts.” I laughed, and told him that it’s true—we must be able to get over how crappy our first drafts might be before attempting to do write something solid.

Though I gave my grandfather this advice only a couple of weeks ago, I was still somehow unprepared for how bad my fist attempts at novel writing would be. The last two nights, I’ve sat at my computer with all the eagerness of a child waiting to open presents on Christmas morning, cracking my knuckles, tea at the ready, expecting to spew out words of gold. Not so. I’ve barely been able to eek out a few pages of total schlock. Even though I know better than to have unrealistic expectations, I was disappointed in myself. I told myself, as well as a few others, that I would just “mess around—you know, tinker a bit” with the voice and characters of this new project so that I could get a feel for how this book will come out of me. But secretly, I half-expected to write three brilliantly-crafted chapters the first night.


In “Shitty First Drafts,” Lamott writes that “people look at successful writers…and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.” I definitely consider myself pretty “initiated” by now, and I still had the fantasy stuck in my head.

Whenever people ask me if I love to write, I have to think about all the times I sit with my fingers hovering above the keyboard, feeling extremely nervous and unhappy. It’s not so much about love, it’s about need; there is no doubt in my mind that I need to write.

Someone who very recently proved how little he understands me said that it seemed like writing doesn’t make me happy. Just because writing is sometimes a painful endeavor, just because it is difficult and challenges me in ways that aren’t always comfortable, does not mean that it doesn’t also make me incredibly happy. The good stuff in life wouldn’t be so good if it were easily achieved.

This always makes me think about the movie, Adaptation, in which we see Meryl Streep happily and prettily typing from her New York office, smiling as the words flow effortlessly onto the screen. We then see Nicolas Cage, sweating and stressing at his typewriter, trying to urge himself forward with promises of coffee and food, hating himself and everything he writes. Nicolas Cage in this moment is much more true to how I work. I very often have to bribe myself with a treat in order to get a few hours of writing in.

Sometimes the flow does come and the words do drip from my mind to my fingers in an effortless continuity, but most of the time when I am writing, I am hating life a little bit. It usually isn’t until after I’ve pressed the “Save” button, shut my computer down, and walked away that I feel good.

On the days that I don’t sit and write, those are the days when I feel unhappy. Any time I write, even if it’s something too shitty to ever keep or show anyone, I know that I’ve done what I am meant to do. And that—that makes me happy.

3 thoughts on “Papa Ben and Anne Lamott Teach Me a Lesson

  1. After listening to someone constantly question why bad things always happen and why he can never be happy, it’s refreshing to read about someone knowing full well what makes them happy. 🙂

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