Anne Lamott on the creative process

If music and painting can be taught and constitute quite common hobbies, in France, writing is put high up on a pedestal: you cannot learn how to write, you know, or you don’t. Writing comes from the sacred or the gifted rather than hard work and talent unlike any other art form. Recently, university degrees in creative writing as well as creative classes have flourished in France, making the case that the mindset is changing. In this respect, the Anglo-Saxon mindset is quite different than the French one. Writing can be discussed and is taught at university since decades. Moreover the Anglo-Saxon literature counts several important books about writing.

One famous book is the one of U.S. author Anne Lamott (1954-), Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In her book, Anne Lamott shares what it is to be a writer; the little joys and big doubts she carries with her every single day when facing a blank sheet. Thus, despite her book being about writing, and like the title suggests it, these instructions on writing can largely apply to life itself, and any other creative projects that one may pursue: from launching a new business to contributing to a charity or practicing sport activities or any other art form from conception to final product.

“But how?” my students ask. “How do you actually do it?” You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your 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 ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind – a scene, a locale, a character, whatever – and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched – like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk. There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you have meningitis. Then the phone rings and you look up at the ceiling with fury, summon every ounce of noblesse oblige, and answer the call politely, with maybe just the merest hint of irritation. The caller asks if you’re working, and you say yeah, because you are.

Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

In a uniquely sincere and funny manner, Anne Lamott describes the madness one’s may be confronted to when starting a new project:

“Then your mental illness arrives at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back. What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating, I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop. First I try to breathe, because I’m either sitting there panting like a lapdog or I’m unintentionally making slow asthmatic death rattles. So I just sit there for a minute, breathing slowly, quietly. I let my mind wander. After a moment I may notice that I’m trying to decide whether or not I am too old for orthodontia and whether right now would be a good time to make a few calls, and then I start to think about learning to use makeup and how maybe I could find some boyfriend who is not a total and complete fix-upper and then my life would be totally great and I’d be happy all the time, and then I think about all the people I should have called back before I sat down to work, and how I should probably at least check in with my agent and tell him this great idea I have and see if he thinks it’s a good idea, and see if he thinks I need orthodontia – if that is what he is actually thinking whenever we have lunch together.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

This illness is what U.S. author Steven Pressfield (1943 -) called “Resistance” in his book The War of Art. He explains : “That’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance”. This is what happen every time we start a new project that “rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth or integrity”. Resistance, according to Steven Pressfield, is self-inflicted: it comes from doubt, fear, procrastination, ego and even self-sabotaging. Anne Lamott talks about Resistance in these terms:

“What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. […] Quieting the voices is at least half the battle I fight daily. But this is better than it used to be. It used to be 87 percent.” – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Works of art referenced in this article: