Reading Series: Bird by Bird

I think all aspiring writers crack open writing books hoping to find the fountain-of-youth secret to literary success. They close each book disappointed, never finding the searched-for magic words. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is no exception.

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And she knows it. From page one, Lamott admits that writing well is “about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.” In the middle of all the advice on networking and platform building and editing and publishing I have received during the last two years, this simple statement is most welcome. There are days when I need to hear that writing is hard for someone else, someone who has been published.

The only consistent writing I am doing right now is a daily haiku for the month of November. Just producing those three lines every day is challenging—as it should be, according to Lamott. It feels good to “get a little work done everyday,” even when I don’t feel inspired.

Another statement Lamott made that has been running around in my head is people “kind of want to write, but they really want to be published.” It has taken a few weeks to see myself in her words. I love writing, I do. But as much as I want to write well, I want to be published more. And not just published, I want to be famous—ridiculously famous and sickeningly wealthy.

Logically, I know I don’t want the pressure and lack of privacy that comes with fame, but in the recesses of my mind I am still preparing to be famous some day. I imagine critics, scholars, and students examining my work, debating its symbolism, and searching my journals for clues. A year or so ago I resigned myself to the fact that this fame would probably not come while I am living.

More recently I resigned myself to the fact that this fame will never come.

It seems ridiculous that I have held this fantasy intact for so long.

But then, not so ridiculous when the primary promise of the program I am enrolled in is a “100% chance of being published” before graduation. It is implied that with publication come money and fame and these three add up to success.

Publication is heralded as the one sign of success while excellence of writing and integrity of content are secondary concerns. After five semesters under this philosophy, I have a dozen bylines, mounds of frustration, and muddled career goals.

With the delusional dreams of fame dissipating, I have to redefine success for myself. As far as writing goes, I appreciate Lamott’s description that writing can help the writer “to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.” Writing a haiku everyday wakes me up, makes me really pay attention. I hope my small poems help others pay attention as well. That is enough success for me.

How do you define success? How are you accomplishing your goals of success?


6 thoughts on “Reading Series: Bird by Bird

  1. I love your haikus! Well, while “getting published” in this program does indeed add to your resume and look good, I always tell people not to measure success by “getting published.” Tons of books get published and never sell. So “getting published” and then selling 500 books and having the rest go out of print and get destroyed . . . well, it’s hard to see that necessarily as success. Personally, I just want to write the best I can and see what God does with it. Sounds sorta lame and maybe like a cop out, but I am most responsible to use the gift God gave me–whether anyone else chooses to put money on that gift or not. In heaven, God will not ask me how many Twitter followers I had and how many books I sold, he will ask for an accounting for what I did with the gift he gave me. I don’t want to have hid it in the ground out of fear (that I wouldn’t get published, that I wouldn’t sell enough, that . . . whatever). Will your words make a difference? I think they will.

    1. Precisely, Professor Taylor! I am so thankful for your presence and voice in our program.
      I don’t think what you said about writing well and seeing what God does with it is lame or a cop out. In fact, a passage from Luke (12:13-21) expressing those same ideas was one of the inciting factors for this post. The single-minded goal of getting published, in my opinion, expresses distrust in God to take care of us. On the other hand, writing well with the hopes of God using that writing as He sees fit is a more healthy way to go about the whole thing. Sometimes that means pursuing increasingly prestigious publication that will result in wealth and fame, sometimes it means being content publishing blog posts that ten people read.

  2. See, this makes me happy. It’s nice to know someone else feels the same way. At the same time, with publishing being an acknowledged goal, how do you feel about the pressure to accept any and every job that comes your way, all in the hopes that eventually they’ll all build up into a staircase high enough for you to climb to success in the kind of writing you actually want to do?

    1. We have to start somewhere, right? (This is hard for me to answer because I have not put myself in a position where jobs come my way, so what I am saying is mostly theoretical.) That being said, I don’t think getting published is bad—I think preoccupation with getting published is bad. So, if you have a healthy view of publication, I don’t see anything wrong with doing jobs and getting bylines to set you up for success later on.

      You did say “the pressure to accept,” though, which sounds scary. If a person is doing these little jobs purely out of the fear that if she does not do everything possible to break into the publishing world she will never be a fulfilled human being, there is a problem. I think a balance between diligent work and trusting in God’s supernatural way of working things out is needed.

      Also, staircases of tiny jobs are probably not all that stable and liable to topple without warning.

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