“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.