Monday, 3 November 2014

Bird by Bird - Heather Dyer

© nao-cha

“Bird by bird, son,” says Mr. Lamott, when his son is overwhelmed by a school project on birds and doesn’t know where to begin: “Just take it bird by bird.”

'Bird by bird,' is also what I tell myself when I’m facing the immensity of writing a new book. Often a new creative endeavour is a journey into the unknown. We advance paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene – often without being entirely sure where we’re headed. We keep our heads down, measuring our progress word by word.
But sometimes it's helpful to measure our progress not by word count, but by time spent writing. Therefore, 'bird by bird' could also mean ‘moment by moment’.

In October, Nicola Morgan set up an October ‘NanoWrimo’ (Novel Writing Group) for authors in the Scattered Authors’ Society. All those who signed up agreed to declare our writing goals at the beginning of the month and encourage each other to keep on track daily via Facebook.

I signed up for the group to help motivate myself to write. But I didn’t declare a daily word count. My goal was simply to open one of my two writing projects – one fiction, one non-fiction – and work on it for an unspecified time first thing every morning. Only after this could I start my other work: editorial report writing, lesson planning, admin, errands…
I used to clear the decks of all this 'other stuff' before tackling my creative writing. But last year other work built up to such an extent that the decks were never clear. I ended up batting off one ‘urgent’ task after another, just to keep up. If I did get to pause I found myself panting and out of breath – not a conducive state of mind for creativity. I realized one day that it had been nearly a year since I’d properly given some attention to the sort of writing that all my other work was meant to support.

And what did I discover during the October Wrimo? I discovered that even fiddling ineffectually with my writing projects tended to produce at least a sentence or an idea that I could build on the following day.
Also, dipping into the worlds of my books – even for just half an hour – allowed these worlds to develop bit by bit in my unconscious. Then, in quiet or preoccupied moments (like walking to work or showering or meditating) lines of dialogue or new ideas tended to arise in my consciousness like bubbles in a pot of porridge on a low heat.
Bird by bird my projects grew, so that at the end of the week I was undeniably further on than I had been at the beginning.
But best of all, I no longer felt the guilt associated with not having been 'creative’. It was only once this guilt was lifted that I realized that I had been struggling to work through a low-level stress caused by the knowledge that I had neglected something that was important but not shouting for attention; something hovering in the background, waiting. I found that by attending to my creative work first, this stress disappeared.
And in the end, I still got as much 'other' work done. If anything, I became more efficient, more patient,  and worked with a greater focus – because I have already satisfied that ‘thing’ hovering in the background.

This way of working is not new to me – in fact, I advise all my students to try working this way. But somehow I had let my priorities slide. The October NanoWrimo group prompted me to remember my priorities. I feel better for it – and so does my writing.

 Bird by bird,” is the title of Anne Lamott’s book about writing and about being a writer.
Heather Dyer's latest book is The Flying Bedroom.



Sue Purkiss said...

Good luck with your work, Heather, and with juggling all those different demands.

Susan Price said...

Hi Heather - I think I'm going to have to take a leaf from your book. I'm being overwhelmed by RLF/in-school work to the extent that I'm not writing - writing, that is, my writing, the stuff that's important to me.
So thanks - good advice!

Nick Green said...

I think writers tend to suffer from what is known (I think...) as the Taxi Driver's Dilemma. (It's the Taxi Driver's something, anyway).

The Dilemma, as far as I recall, goes like this: some taxi drivers have a policy of working until they make a certain amount each day, and then they stop as soon as they hit that amount. This means that on slow days they will drive around for ages, wearing out their cars and wasting their time, just to hit their quota. But on brisk days, they might miss out on lots of business because they stop soon after they hit their quota. So they'd be better off driving all day on the brisk days, and knocking off early on the slow ones.

This is why I don't like word counts.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Sue - and good luck Susan!And yes, Nick, that makes sense to me too. If it feels like pulling teeth perhaps it's best not to spend too long on it that day...

Liz Kessler said...

This is a really lovely blog. I can relate to a lot of what you've said. I'm always thinking 'I'll just get this stuff out of the way first' and finding the day has disappeared before I've done what I really wanted/needed to do with my writing. I'm going to try to do the same thing as you, and do the 'other' stuff AFTER the writing from now on!

You've also reminded me that I bought 'Bird by Bird' a while ago and haven't read it yet. I must dig it out and read it.

Nick, I like the taxi analogy, and I think if it works that way then it isn't good. I do work with word counts and find them really helpful - but don't necessarily stop when I've hit the target. For me, what feels nice is that if it's hard going then I know I can stop when i reach the target, but if it's going well, I'll keep on going whilst the words are flowing. This means that on a good day I can get ahead of myself and get some words in the bank for the next time it's feeling tough, or the sun's shining and the surf's up! :)

PS Beautiful photo too, Heather!

Ann Turnbull said...

It's so important to start with writing, no matter how important the other stuff seems. It doesn't have to be done early, just first. Like you, Heather, I've been trying recently to bring myself back to that mindset, and I always feel better when I do it. And it's so true that just writing a note or taking a quick look at your WIP keeps you on board on days when you can't write.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Liz - hope it works for you too. And Ann, maybe it's a bit like meditation - doing it first sort of centres you for the day...

Penny Dolan said...

Good to read this, Heather, especially when so many of the other tasks come with silent but shouty words like "urgent" and "asap" somehow attached to them. Yes, "bird by bird", taking time with the thing you need to do FOR you. Essential.

Lari Don said...

A very wise blog post, and very wise comments. I completely agree that spending a litle time with a project every day keeps it in your head and keeps it moving forward. I'm off to tackle the next bird in my novel now! (Which, coincidentally, actually is a scene with a bird in it...)