Part One Summary: Writing
Summary of Getting Started
Lamott advises writers to start with their childhood because it is the source of abundant material. Try to focus on one area, such as kindergarten or family vacations. Holidays or big events are another way to remember details of the past, such as faces, clothing, food, customs, conversations. She advises sitting down at the same time each day to write. Stay at the desk and try to get one scene, one event. Clear a space for this activity. You want the piece to come alive, but it cannot be willed. Persistence pays off. Some days are better than others. One day you are ashamed of the result, and the next day a miracle happens. Sometimes you have to write three bad pages to get to one good one. You can be defeated by your writing paranoia, or use it as material in your writing, as Lamott does with humor.
Commentary on Getting Started
Lamott talks about her students in each chapter. Often they just want to be published but don't want to go through the writing process. She tries to explain that the goal is to write; publication is secondary or later. Writing can change you, like having a baby or discovering yourself. It is valuable because it makes you pay attention to your life. Publication does not do this work of discovery as writing does. With writing you can create whole worlds. Lamott says that for her, books are one of the most important things on earth. They help us understand ourselves. Any writer can experience this in the process of writing. She shows in this chapter that even the most common life has enough material to write about; we all had a childhood, yet each one was different. Every chapter quotes famous writers on writing or passages from literature that illustrate something about writing. Here she quotes Flannery O'Connor on childhood and a whole poem by Phillip Lopate on writing paranoia. Another goal of becoming a writer is to become a better reader of great works as the models of writing.
Summary of “Short Assignments”
One helpful idea in starting out is to do short assignments rather than trying a novel at the first go. Sit quietly and breathe and let the mind go. At each sitting, says Lamott, the goal is to write only as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame. Small bites and small steps are the way to start, just a one- paragraph description of a character or a moment. She gives an example from her father that explains the title of the book. Her young brother had put off a school report on birds that was due the next day. He was sitting at the table overwhelmed at the size of what he had to accomplish. Her father put his arm around his son and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird” (p. 19).
Writing anything down can seem overwhelming because it strikes at our deepest needs to be heard and respected; also, to make sense of our lives. This is the point of short assignments, one paragraph at a time.
Commentary on Short Assignments
Lamott illustrates all her points in vivid metaphors, personal stories, lines from poems, humor, and scenes from movies. In this chapter she sketches out a funny scene with Bill Murray in Stripes. Lamott knows that all writers, beginning or experienced, have a lot of tension and fear about the writing process. She defuses this emotion with humor. The reader feels more comfortable and also never forgets the point.
Summary of “Shitty First Drafts”
Most professional writers do not write a perfect first draft. This is the good news. They do not know what they want until they start writing. Let it all pour out on the first draft and then shape your material later. The first draft is often terrible, but if one trusts the process of writing, one knows that it will get better with each draft. Lamott says she has to battle the voices in her head that tell her her writing is bad. These are the voices of parents, friends, or critics one imagines finding fault.
Commentary on “Shitty First Drafts”
Lamott tries to comfort the beginner that writing is a process, and that bad first drafts are just a normal part of the process. One should never get discouraged by a first draft and quit. She imagines the voices in her head criticizing her as little mice that she puts into jars to shut them up. Hopefully, her humorous strategies for various writing crises calm the anxieties of beginning writers. In the second and third drafts the writer can see better where to go and how to correct mistakes. The point is that one has to start somewhere and get something on paper to work with.
Summary of “Perfectionism”
Lamott says perfectionism is an enemy because it will block playfulness and intuition. Perfectionism can be an obsession. A writer can be more fertile with letting go. Perfectionism comes from fear of being criticized or wounded. You have to get over perfectionism and find your compassion to be a writer: “We need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here” (p. 32).
Commentary on “Perfectionism”
Lamott identifies perfectionism as a fault in a writer instead of a virtue. If one is worried about every word or the spelling, for instance, nothing is let loose. Creativity involves a little bit of chaos. We knew this as children and should try to keep a little innocence and adventure when writing. One does not take chances if too careful.
Summary of “School Lunches”
Lamott gives an exercise in her classes in which she asks her students to write for a half hour about a school lunch they had as a kid. This involves memory and details. Picking out one item could be enough, the sandwich for instance. She gives a humorous example of her own attempt at the exercise, explaining how embarrassing it was as a child to have a sandwich that was different from everyone else's. Grape jelly was okay, but raspberry jam wasn't.
Commentary on “School Lunches”
This chapter is joyful because it hits a common core of experience from which everyone can draw some interesting personal details. It is an example of the kind of ordinary material in us, like Andy Warhol's tomato soup cans, that can be elaborated by writers in many different directions. By demonstrating her wild imagination about the kind of sandwiches that are acceptable, Lamott makes it okay to be outrageous or inventive in one's writing. Lamott herself tends to go for the moments or things that humans try to avoid so they can look cool in front of other people. If she has weaknesses or negative feelings, she goes there and examines them, showing that this human experience, no matter what it may be, is gold for a writer.
Summary of “Polaroids”
A first draft is like a Polaroid photo developing. It isn't certain how it will look in the beginning. The picture gets clearer as it develops, just like a draft.
Commentary on “Polaroids”
Lamott tells a story to illustrate the principle. She had to write an article on the Special Olympics. She took notes on all the handicapped bodies trying to move and perform. She was not sure where she could go with the material until one man showed her a photo of himself and his buddies in pride. In this venue, he was a star. She understood it was the same for these athletes as for any, except that it was about “tragedy transformed over the years into joy” (p. 42). It took her all day and many notes to find this angle. In the same way, a piece may evolve through drafts.
Summary of “Character”
Knowledge of characters also takes time to emerge through the writing. Each character has a unique background and habits that the writer has to see. Let bad things and bad behavior happen to characters as in real life. Each character will be judged by his or her own evidence. You can base a character partially on your own personality or people you know, or a composite of these. Description has to be used along with dialogue. Try to think of some main trait or belief that holds this character together. The narrator of the story is very important for holding the whole story together, and it helps if the narrator is likable. Don't make a character perfect; faults can be charming.
Commentary on “Character”
Lamott explains her own tendency to choose characters with depth who have opinions on politics and spiritual matters. They have many of her own faults. Characters with clarity of vision are interesting and have a lot to teach. The author believes in books that bring hope. She likes her characters to be reliable; that is, telling the truth to the best of their ability. The author advises staying open to the characters and allowing them free will to avoid manipulating them. An author should never pretend to know more about characters than the characters know. Listen to them.
Summary of “Plot”
E. M. Forster and John Gardner have written brilliantly about plot, and she will add a few thoughts to what they say. Plot grows out of character. Characters should not be pawns for a plot or author's agenda. Focus on character until the reader believes they exist. When you understand what each character most values, you understand what is at stake for them in the action they undertake. The reader's attention is held through the movement of drama, the formula for which is setup, buildup, and payoff, like a joke. Alice Adams gives a formula for a short story: Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending. A formula is a good way to start with plot, but it must be seamless in its moves.
Commentary on “Plot”
Lamott admits she lets herself daydream about her characters until she goes into a trance to get the words and images. The plot falls into place one day at a time, and as John Gardner says, “the dream must be vivid and continuous” (p. 57). The material has to work on its own. You can't fake something to get the plot to move. It must be the true life of the characters. They are changed at the end of the story. The plot shows the steps of change.
Summary of “Dialogue”
Bad dialogue can break the spell of the story. It can't be too long or sound out of character. It is a matter of ear, of being able to hear the way to render a character. It is not actual speech, but a dramatic representation. With Hemingway, “dialogue became sharp and lean” (p. 65). When writing dialogue, sound the words. Take a five-minute speech and make it into one sentence. Each character should be able to be identified by speech pattern and idiom. Their clothes and situation also speak for them. Be careful of using dialect; it is tiring to read.
Commentary on “Dialogue”
Lamott has some subtle points about dialogue that are helpful. Good dialogue, she says, includes both what is said and not said. It is good to let characters hold back some thoughts. Voice is the way to nail dialogue. To find the voice of each character, the author has to know the character and how he or she reacts to things in life. A good author has compassion for both good and bad characters and avoids black and white portraits. A good way to bring out depth is to show what the character says to his boss and contrast that to what he says to his wife.
Summary of “Set Design”
Be like a set designer for a play or movie. Every object and detail in the room gives layers of information about plot and characters. Call someone to find out details about different kinds of carpets, furniture, or plants you don't know of yourself but need for your story. Metaphors about the setting bring out deeper aspects of the theme.
Commentary of “Set Design”
Lamott gives examples of how she designs sets for stories. For instance, she wrote a story about a woman who gardens, but since she did not herself, she called up a nursery to ask about plants and visited people's gardens. Garden as metaphor for paradise or creativity also adds to the meaning of the setting.
Summary of “False Starts”
False starts in your writing are not a problem, because each time you see something that is not right, it brings you closer to something that is. That is the importance of not jumping to conclusions in your work; it has to be given time to show what it really is.
Commentary on “False Starts”
Lamott gives moving examples of false starts, such as trying to write a first impression of an old people's home or a dying person. At first, only the superficial details may appear. Later on, the writer might get to the essence of the people or scene. Don't be in a hurry. With time, the writer sees more and deeper connections between things.
Summary of “Plot Treatment”
This chapter concerns outlining the plot ahead of time.Lamott prefers having a temporary destination and writing toward that—say, a climax. Along the way, however, things change, and the climax may have to be rethought. Once, when her editor did not like her book, he told her to write a plot treatment explaining chapter by chapter who the characters were becoming.
Commentary on “Plot Treatment”
Lamott shows a good technique for checking the continuity of the plot and the development of characters. A treatment is a short prose summary of the action and what happens to the characters. It is an overview of the whole book or story. Sometimes the author has details in mind but has forgotten to put them on paper to make the story coherent for the reader. The treatment may be more helpful than an outline in exposing the beauty and weakness of the plot.
Summary of “How Do You Know When You're Done?”
At some point, the author is tired of the project and wants to end it to get on with the next one. All problems of the draft, however, have to be solved before the piece is finished, such as a resolved plot, the tone, the dialogue, etc.
Commentary on “How Do You Know When You're Done?”
Lamott says sometimes the author works until “there is no more steam in the pressure cooker” (p. 94) meaning it is the best you can do for now, and then one is finished.