“We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
The thing was, I thought I might never write again. This was a month ago. I was all but defeated and I lost my faith, not because of the writer’s block or the endless rejections or because I was not published. I lost my heart because I was published. It was the publication process specifically. That cold, reality that hits you like a cancer diagnosis.
It sets in about a month after the book hits the shelf. There are a few reviews, a handful of readings and some brief mentions in the press. And then suddenly it stops. It gets very quiet. Bookstores don’t let you read because you “don’t draw”. Your publisher doesn’t want to allocate any marketing dollars because you’ve not “caught fire”, and you are told by your peers and your agent and your editor alike that the success of your book is on your shoulders now.
It’s just not enough to struggle for years to create something real and true and from your heart. It’s not enough to endure the process of finding an agent, of selling a novel, of preparing it for publication. That trail of tears is only the beginning. For when you arrive, the great rock that is your heart’s creation rolls back down the mountain and you must become Sisyphus, and put your back into a new ascent.
So, about four months after the release of Serpent Box, I wanted to quit. I wanted to burn all my notebooks and drag all my unfinished stories into the recycle bin and hit empty, because why write? What is the purpose of writing, of signing with a big publisher, of spending thousands of my own dollars and hundreds of my own hours building websites and book trailers and blogging? How can I be a father, a husband, an employee, a promoter, a writer all at the same time? Where do I even begin? Well, I know what Anne Lamott would tell me. Bird by bird, she’d say. You take it bird by bird.
It was the first book I ever read on writing. A slim, pithy volume of anecdotes, aphorisms and instructions that gave me the courage and confidence to begin a whole new life. Bird by Bird was my gateway into the writing life, or perhaps I should say the writing mind. When I read it for the first time in 1997 I had written a total of two bad short stories. I was no writer. But that didn’t matter to Anne Lamott. There was a writer inside me, and somehow she knew this.
Bird by Bird helped me understand many things about writing that I felt intuitively yet could not articulate or confirm. The struggle of a writer. The daily commitment to the blank page. The trust in the subconscious. The faith that, through desire, persistence and a humble dedication to craft, something worthy of reading would emerge from your heart. Anne Lamott humanized writing and writers so that I could believe I could do it and be one.
I’m reading Bird by Bird again, for the first time in ten years because I’m suffering a new crisis of faith. I’m having trouble believing not just in me, but in writing itself. Why do it? To what end? The publishing industry and the book business is so awful. It’s a machine whose mechanisms work against those who provide the product that sustains it. The writer who seeks to create something different, something non-commercial, something with a little soul, is in for a shock. I tell you plain the business of books has sullied my heart.
So here I am, reading this book that I turned to so long ago for direction and answers, and what I’m discovering is just how much of Bird by Bird stuck, how so many of Anne’s words and ideas about writing and story not only made it to the pages of my own work, but into the fabric of my writer’s heart.
In order to be a writer you have to learn to be reverent.
Yes. We humble ourselves before the world, before the page. We ask for direction and clarity and courage, and we ask it in the manner of a supplicant before his God.
Writing involves seeing people suffer and finding some meaning therein.
You write through the pain toward the joy. If there is no meaning to this why live at all?
Hope is a revolutionary patience…American novels ought to have hope.
Hope for oneself. Hope for mankind. Hope. A transformative belief in goodness and in the meaning of what we see and feel. And that all things do in fact have significance and lead toward a better understanding of ourselves.
Good writing is about telling the truth.
My truth which is your truth because all truths are shared.
There is a door we all want to walk through and writing can help you find it and open it.
You don’t need Prozac and you don’t need the booze. You don’t need a therapist. Answers are found sometimes by asking questions and you don’t really need the answers anyway. Just the questions are often enough. Writing is asking questions.
Don’t pretend you know more about your characters than you do, because you don’t…Plot grows out of character…Don’t worry about plot, worry about character.
And worry I did. Never letting the story control me, but letting its people. I wrote my first novel by watching and listening to its people.
Plot is: what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn’t.
Every single one of my characters wound up doing things that on its surface, seemed crazy. But it all made sense in the end and of course it could not have happened any other way.
Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself.
And I had to become a master hypnotist. Look at me now. I’m doing it again. I am devising ways to convince myself that I am worthy of this very small gift, and that I am sane. And I have discovered that many of the tools and tricks I use to cajole myself to keep going were given to me by a woman I never met who sat down like I did and wrote something out of her heart as a gift to those who would follow her down that treacherous path a writer of good conscience must travel each and every day.
Bird by Bird. Little by little. One step at a time, one day at a time. You focus your attention on what is right in front of you, right there, the small things. The birds are the things we write about, which are the things we care about, the things we believe with all our heart. And those things don’t happen fast. They don’t happen without strain and effort and patience and time.
(The) truth is beyond our ability to capture in a few words…(and) there will need to be some sort of unfolding to contain it, and there will need to be layers. Bird by Bird
Our living is like this too. We stumble upon great truths by gathering small ones. If we observe closely, with the most sincere humility, the people and the places that claim our attention through their proximity alone, through their seemingly random placement in our paths, we begin to see ourselves reflected in them. For we are not separate from any thing or any one.
This flesh is but a memento, yet it tells the true. Ultimately every man’s path is every other’s. There are no separate journeys for there are no separate men to make them. All men are one and there is no other tale to tell. Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing.
Why, in God’s name, do I write?
I write to help me discover and pull back the layers. I write to assemble in one place a series of relevant truths and thus understand something greater. About the world. About myself. I write as a defense against fear and doubt and yes, anger at the ugly, unjust world, but also I write to express joy at that same world when it is beautiful and just. I write to create small order out of this great chaos, and to rise above, or perhaps filter out, the din of this mad living. I write to remember. I write to see. And I only share it with you, with other readers, because I so desperately seek communion with those who believe in the power of words to change and transform and unify the living and the dead. Words, which are birds. Birds which are tiny, fragile things encased in feathers, things that defy the forces that fix us to the spinning earth, that hold us down, that hold us back. Words are the crude ciphers of a heart bursting with joy and confusion, the visible proxies of sounds that are cries of exultation and pain.
So out of my despair has come a new hope that is really an old hope, the hope that through words and language and story I can change a tiny part of the world, and this is the hope that started me on my writing path in the beginning. Because writing, true writing, is not about being read or published or sold, it’s about discovery. I have discovered again why I write. By going back to Bird by Bird, by going back to the place where I first drew a cup from the well, I have realigned myself with what is important about writing as a means of communication and a way of looking at the world.
This is a letter of humble gratitude to Anne Lamott. Who gave me courage, who stoked my faith. And I would like to give you, Anne, the product you helped me to create. I hope to meet you so that I can place into your cupped hands my little collection of birds, Serpent Box, my story about a boy in search of his faith, in search of his meaning. For he too is a gatherer of birds.
If anybody know how I can get in touch with Anne, I will send you as a thank you gift a copy of Serpent Box. VLC
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A pen. But not just any pen. A Uni-ball GEL Impact 1.0 mm. Black. Or a pencil, if the medium is hard, if the writing is to occur on a table or a desk. If the medium is paper, which is pulverized trees. Lined or graphed and in a notebook without a spiral. Not loose. Not blank. The medium must be contained, bound in some manner as to keep pages from separating. You touch to connect.
A bible. Small, leather-bound, preferably old, a hundred years and counting, and well-read, well-worn. King James edition. Musty-smelling and somewhat faded by sun, by eyes. A good used bible is a window into a another life. Another’s soul.
Rumi. Coleman Barks Edition. Bloated with bookmarks, festooned with 3M brand stick-on flags marking pages and passages and lines where, in times past, a certain unity had occurred, a joining, a reunification between the reader (myself) and the writer (Jelaluddin Rumi) and the translator (Coleman Barks), forming a momentary trinity, a new Pangaea, a super-continent of hearts and minds.
A small stone pried loose from Jack London’s grave. Mouse-sized and mouse-colored. Suitable for rubbing or total enclosure within a fist. It gives off a heat you can feel in your palm. A transference.
Bones. The ivory femur of a deer. Human metatarsals. A few teeth, molars, no dental work, likely from China. Various vertebrae. The scapula of a seal. A cat skull. A marmot skull, a fox, a raccoon. The fully articulated skeleton of a tropical snake. There was flesh here. There was living.
Dog tags. Tin. Some notched, some not. WWII, Korea, Vietnam. Unknown men, long gone. Closer to true identity now. Perhaps there is some power within them, some force I can harness.
Sea shells, acorns, owl pellets, Zippo lighters, bullet-casings, fossils spanning epochs and formed during catastrophic events, crucifixes, old rosaries. All objects of a peculiar faith. The talismans of a writer. Hand-worn things that bridge the divide between the living and the dead. They are, to me, proof of existence beyond myself. Beyond time. Toy soldiers, .50 caliber Confederate slugs dug from the hard-packed mud of Fredericksburg, pinecones, old photographs bearing unknown faces and graced with captions in floaty script, cigar boxes, envelopes stuffed with cancelled stamps, comic books, baseball cards and ticket stubs from games actually attended. The things I carry. The things I hold. Not on my person, but in my hands, sometimes, before the writing begins. During the writing. Little brass keys and thick foreign coins. Connections, proofs and signs. I am nothing without them. They help me to connect, to believe, to imagine other lives and also my own, once I am gone. Without them I am nothing.
How do you channel the un-seeable? How do you create a link between the unknown and the barely understood? How do you reconcile living? Writing as living? Writers look to printed words, and objects. They hold them, read them, take them into themselves. You write to understand living.
For me there must be a physical connection to the mystery of this life. A grounding. Small, fleeting answers to great questions. Who I am? What I am? What do I do with pen and wood pulp and ink? Combine them. Create living artifacts that require no translation, no guesswork. I Lived. Construct a conduit between the living and the dead. That which was and that which is to be. And this is how it is with the snakes. This is what a Holiness man does with his serpents. He connects to his God.
A Kentucky preacher, Pentecostal, arrested just last week for trafficking snakes.
Dozens of snakes confiscated. Donated to a local reptile zoo. These snakes were the implements of this man’s faith. They represent his link to his God. Holiness Pentecostals, Sign Followers as they are called, believe in what Jesus says regarding faith and the Holy Spirit. He said that those who believe are protected. He said that those whose hearts are true can, when filled with the Holy Spirit, withstand venomous bites and the consumption of deadly poisons. I believe this to be metaphor, but it doesn’t make a difference what I believe. I have my own bizarre rituals of faith. The Holiness people believe this to be literally true. Theirs is a religion marked by a visceral connection to God and that the Holy Spirit is the manifestation of God. When they handle serpents or drink poison they are proving to themselves that God is there, with them, in their flesh. Proof of God. Imagine. This is beautiful. This is sane. Wanting this, now, in this world, makes perfect sense. Are you with me God? Are you there? Touch me. Hold my hand, stroke my head. Protect me from death because, sweet Jesus, I am so damn scared of living.
Why must we take away their snakes? Why is religious serpent handling illegal? Why not let these people alone? They are simply trying to connect with God. They are trying to find some meaning in a life which has become increasingly besought with violence, hate, greed, selfishness and fear. If a snake can do this then let them keeps snakes.
Snakes – the very symbols of sin, the darkness, the duality of man’s spirit, a reptile, primitive and cold-blooded, from a wholly different world, a different time, before the onset of man, a creature sleek and simple and perfectly designed to fit its niches, a beautiful product of evolution, but also a creature so misunderstood and cast so undeservedly into a role of malevolence. This organism is a perfect conduit to faith. Because it is a metaphor for man.
Pentecostalism is the fastest growing branch of Christianity in the world. Not the snake handling variety but the tamer, safer version that simply focuses on the Holy Spirit. And it’s no surprise. In how many other places can we find a visceral connection with a higher, benevolent power? Pentecostalism so named for Christian Day of Pentecost, which occurs fifty days after Easter, and in the Book of Acts, that first Pentecost marks the beginning of the Christian church and faith. On that first Day of Pentecost, the bible says, the Holy Spirit reveals itself as an omnipresent helper and spirit of truth. It was the Holy Spirit who appeared to Mary and the apostles on the day of Pentecost to affirm the resurrection and their faith.
The Holy Spirit. You don’t have to believe in Jesus or God to appreciate the notion of something inside and all around us that we can feel. And if you pay attention you can feel it, without snakes, without bibles, without mass or worship or prayers. You don’t need religion to feel connected, looked after or loved. You don’t need miracles performed from above when you have miracles performed here, all around you every second. The continuous unwinding and reforming of DNA, the birth of a child, a spider’s web, the human mind.
“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.”
“That deep emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”
This is my idea too. God is nature. God is the universe. And I can feel it, without my tangible crutches, my scrounged and collected implements of faith. But I want those things, as they are the comfort food of my soul. I want my bibles and my bones and my snakes. Because simply seeing them reminds me that I am not alone.
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"In the train, I’m sitting next to a woman who’s reading a business book called “The Case For Levity”, opened to a page with a little text box that says, literally, “8 Questions for Measuring a Potential Employee’s Fun Quotient”. Ha! I’ve been waiting for the Slaughter Mountain chapter since Monday...I’m beyond questioning you as an author – you’ve already earned my trust as a reader, and since you’re a craftsman I will digress briefly and tell you specifically how you did it to me. Each of these ‘checkerboard chapters’, the Ten Years Earlier section, has a payoff. At first glance, I thought “Ten years earlier? Oh noooo! I’ve got to wait until I find out what on earth happens to Jacob!”
But you make it easy to wait. Every chapter illuminates something vital in his parents’ lives, something meaningful and interesting. You don’t betray your reader. Every chapter ends with a feeling of dawning enlightenment, and I know that it is purposeful and intentional. And then, somewhere around the nighttime box car incident with Charles and Sylus, I was content to leave Jacob on the back burner, lying bitten in the Tyborn tree, because I already trust you. And all of a sudden, I’m more interested in Charles and Rebecca than I am in Jacob. A coup for the author!
Our Sofia was born at home, by the way. Jacob’s birth rang true to me. I recognized it. I knew, when reading it, that you were a father. I tasted a little of the love you have for your daughters. It echoed and resonated with the love I have for mine.
So, to resume what I began in the first paragraph: I’ve been waiting for Slaughter Mountain since Monday. A good waiting, a getting ready to savor a good meal kind of waiting. And you pulled it off for me. I don’t see any of the work you put into it, edits or revisions or doubts. I know the work that goes into crafting something, and I know how difficult or impossible it is to come back to it later, separate from the experience of making it. But I’m telling you: from the outside, it flowed. Easily, perfectly. I forgot I was reading, I forgot I was on a train. You pulled me out of myself and landed me in the crowd under the circus tent, and I was a spectator, and then, as in a dream, I was Charles, or perhaps just behind him. And then I was the boy, with a tamed rattlesnake in my hands and filled with the spirit of the Holy Ghost… as I was in my mother’s high octane Pentecostal church, drizzled with oil, speaking in tongues, and watching the casting out of demons.
You pulled me straight out of myself, heated me in your poetic prose, pounded at me and molded me and then sank me in the ice bath of my own memories, and you made me different. Your writing changed me, man!
I always used to joke that my mom’s church was just one level below snake handling. It is a bizarre and wonderful experience to have you leading me down this road you’ve built.
Thanks for writing this book. It’s marvelous, it feels just right to be reading it, and I am happy to know you. I don’t know what kind of difficulties you’re facing today, but if you ask me, you should let ‘em go. You’re an author, and your book is out there doing good things to people. Everything else is just details.
I can’t wait to keep reading!
THIS, dear readers, is why I write and why I will keep writing, as long as you let me. As long as you will keep reading.
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Yes Flannery, we are made out of dust, cosmic dust, the smallest particles of which we may soon actually discover, courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN next month. Strangelets, monopoles, bosons. The very essence of everything that is. Photons, gluons, quarks. The deeper we probe, the more we discover. Life is infinitely complex.
Stories are built out of dust. You sit for hours, days, weeks, plucking with tweezers the little particles of dust from yourself and carefully arranging them so that they resemble a new living thing separate from yourself yet still connected, so tenuously, that each particle seems to depend on the other for its strength and meaning. You feel that it can crumble back to dust at any moment. And it can. The journey of a story’s creation is treacherous and painful. And it can sometimes take years.
The materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Shame, doubt, sudden pangs of unabashed love. Leaves, water, light. We draw from the flotsam of our lives. What are my materials? There are the places I’ve been and the people whose lives I’ve entered, or who’ve entered me. It we are lucky, we will collide with each other, at random, and take away little bits of each other and then, if we’re luckier still, spin off on a whole new trajectory, slightly altered for the interaction. Slightly better.
While I was writing Serpent Box I experienced moments of terror when it seemed as if the whole story was in danger of slipping out of my hands and vanishing forever. Because I didn’t know how to write a story (and still don’t) I lived in perpetual fear. Each morning I would gather what dust the earth itself would yield to me. My daily walk with my dog would guide the day’s writing. The dog would lead and I would follow. I believe we can learn much from a dog. Where the dog would take me, I was meant to go, and what I saw, though small and insignificant, was placed there for me to use. Many of the things that made it in to the novel came directly from these micro-journeys – owls, serpents, cloud movements, the shape of a tree, the quality of light. But it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t getting myself dusty.
John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, The East of Eden Letters, became my guide. Within this slim volume, I found the courage and the method to mine my own dust. Collected here are Steinbeck’s daily letters to his editor and friend Pascal Covici. He wrote them while writing East of Eden, and though he was at that time no rookie, he clearly faced the page as I did, with all the doubt and emptiness of a first time novelist. Steinbeck’s ‘method’ helped inform my own budding process and I began to write a letter every morning before I began the actual writing of Serpent Box in order to help me understand what I had done the day before and what I hoped to do in the day’s writing ahead.
Your dust is everything you are and everything you see. It swirls all around you, though sometimes it needs to be stirred up, like algae in a pond. The dust of me lies in my earliest memories, and in those flashes of revelation that manifest themselves when the then is juxtaposed with the now. Two forces are at work on the writer of fiction, the past and the present, and between the two the lens of the story itself, which draws the two into focus to provide for a collision of particles that yield something new. The story is an instrument of becoming, not the product of it. And that is why some stories take years to form, and some never form, but lie in stasis waiting the collision which will set them spinning.
I wrote 162 pages of “warm-up” letters while writing Serpent Box. Reading them now will bring me to tears. They are stark and self-effacing and pathetic. But writing them helped me to find the story and find myself. I wrote them to a friend, who would kindly answer indirectly, helping me to find my own way, my own dust. The dust of fiction reveals itself not concretely, but as grains of flowing sand whose form can be glimpsed through careful observation and reflection, and then only briefly. Writing fiction is a grand job, and the question is, am I good enough for it?
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What a strange thing it is, to stand before a group of people unknown to you and read to them. There is nothing quite like it. You appear before a group of people and read from something painfully extracted from yourself. You read to them, for their approval, that which you’ve derived, at great cost, from your living. You let them hear, in your truest voice and intonation, your most secret, private thoughts and observations, gleaned from all your moments of pain and glory. You open your self. You expose the very essence of who you are. When you stand before a body of readers to share what you have written, honestly and with all your might, you stand naked and alone among the critics, judges and lords of the land to which you seek citizenship.
What an electrifying thing this is, to take what you’ve created in utter solitude that which you could not possibly conceive of being read by anyone, and to transmit it, via your mouth, to the minds and hearts of story-lovers whose names and lives are as mysterious as the very source of the words themselves. Can there to be a purer union than that of the reader who loves the act of reading and the listener whose passions are words and books? There symbiosis here, between the story-teller and the story-lover. There’s a flow of something, back and forth, a willingness to be part of the other, a desire to know and be known.
Here’s how it begins. Words lie on the page. You see the words there but for a moment there’s no reaction between mind and mouth, for a nanosecond there’s a terrifying sense of panic, as if you’ve lost the faculty to translate language into sound. There’s a moment when the words are legible and then there’s a moment when they blur into strange forms like ancient Greek or Celtic runes. So you breathe and you blink and you remember the very day you sat alone with a pen and a book of lined paper when those words, the ones right there below you, printed and no longer your own, first came to you, as mysteriously as they come to you now. You remember that they were given to you as a gift, but at the great cost of your full commitment to them. You remember that they came only one, two, three at a time like drops of water from a faulty valve. You didn’t understand them then and you seem not to understand them now and before you sits a small but patient crowd who have relinquished part of their afternoon, and part of their private joy - the sacred act of reading. They have turned that over to you, they are trusting you with that, allowing you to do for them what they have already mastered, and more than that, allowing you to transpose your voice, your sound, onto words that would otherwise become their own, so that forever you will be inseparable from everything stamped with your style and your name.
There’s a lot of pressure on a new writer. There’s a lot at stake. You want the world to read your book but you don’t want to beg for it, or sell hard. You want the book to come to readers naturally, on its own merits. A book is a personal thing. It’s not a patent-medicine or a Ginsu knife. You can’t sell a book any more than you can sell yourself as a friend. Friendships are formed through affinities between people. The relationship between a book and a reader is like a friendship. If there’s something about it that connects you, that resonates with you, then you can become its friend. Reading at bookstores is the only way a writer can truly connect with a reader. And one feels a great responsibility to those who come to listen. I’m humbled by it. A reading is a holy event. I approach even a small, intimate reading as if I was Martin Luther King mounting the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as if what I read actually means something, or might move someone. Because I want the reader-turned-listener to feel what I feel, to see what I see, to know what I know. I want us to be one.
The miracle of reading a book, the joy of it, is when the writer and the reader meet on the page and become one. When the reader and the writer meet face-to-face the connection between the story and the reader can be even more powerful. The human voice is beautiful and nuanced. It is suffused with so much emotion, so much meaning, that the pauses themselves can bear the significance of words. A breath can impart sense, a tremolo, a stutter - all become the vocabulary of the reader. Listen to Martin Luther King when he speaks. The null space is as powerful as the text itself. The void between words, the gestures, the movement of eyes, the hand at the brow, the tilt of a head. We see the words come to life. We see them wholly, and just as the writer intended.
Hemingway said that writing was simply, the greatest pleasure. I used to agree. Yes, there can be great joy in the writing but I tell you, there is greater joy in the reading of the writing, especially to an audience of eager listeners. The moment when the words truly come to life, and take on their fullest meaning, is that moment when they’re being shared, physically, between the writer and the reader hearing them for the first time. That is the magic of story-telling. The teller standing before the listener, fully involved in the telling. Bookstore readings are the sole vestige of our ancient story-telling traditions.
As I stood before a small group of listeners at Book Passage this Sunday past, I was aware that my voice was being broadcast not just in the small room at the back of the store, but throughout it. I was told the P.A. system was on low, everywhere, so that those browsing the stacks might hear and be drawn to the reading. And some were drawn. Some came and sat. Some stood for a few minutes and then wandered off. Some simply stood, new books in hand, watching, listening, becoming part of the story for a little while until I stopped, and closed my book and they walked off to once again resume the story of their own.
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