The author of the classic writing guide “Bird by Bird” shares some of her favorite ways to get the creative juices flowing.
Question: What are thernbest writing exercises you know?rnrn
Anne Lamott: WhenrnI used to teach writing, I had lots of them, but writing fiction, shortrnstories, and novels is really about creating—having to create some rncharactersrnthat we’re really interested in really quickly because the trick is, rnyou’ve gotrnto get people to turn the page, unfortunately. Maybern in the books they’re only going to read the first twornpages. So you create a couple ofrncharacters that right away are interesting. You rnput them in a situation where there’s tension and wherernthe poor reader feels, “Oh God, I wonder what happens now?” So I used to have people getting—peoplernwho couldn’t stand each other getting stuck in elevators, or rnmetaphoricallyrngetting stuck in elevators. rnGetting stuck in a situation where they really don’t want to berntogether. Or, something is found,rnlike in “Blue Shoe,” the novel from a number of years ago; something rnthat isrnfound as meaningless. It’s arnlittle tiny rubber blue shoe. Arnhigh top, a Converse, I think, that with a perfectly delineated shoe rnlace, it’srnalmost microscopic in size in that little round label that doesn’t say rnConversernbecause it would be a copyright violation. Those rnlittle things somebody got in a gumball machine, andrnyet to try to figure out why the father held onto it all those years, rnopens up...rnlike in “The Wizard of Oz” when the movie goes from black and white torncolor. It throws the family’srnhistory into color. And that’s notrnalways a good thing. It’s always arngood thing, but it’s often very painful and disturbing and distressing. And it’s often like the house of cardsrncoming down, however, in color.rnrn
And so that’s a situation I would often ask my rnstudents tornwrite about, finding something that you instantly know is like—can’t rnthink ofrnthe word. What’s that thing—arntalisman. Or either something thatrnis protective, or that’s something that sets the hero’s journey intornmotion.rnrn
My experience of exercises is that they’re great rnwhen you’rernin class or workshops, but for me, I kind of work daily on exercises, rnbut that’srnshort assignments again. I’m goingrnto say to myself... like the other day I was actually writing and Irnhad gone to a bilingual Good Friday service in San Francisco at one of rnthe oldrnmission churches from the days when Spain ruled over Mexico and then rntheyrnestablished the mission system in California. It’srn a magnificent church and it is truly the people’srnchurch. And it is very bilingualrnand it’s very middle-class and poor. rnAnd half of the mass is in Spanish, which I don’t speak, and halfrn is inrnEnglish. And it’s so much richerrnwhen you can’t understand the words because it takes you to places rninsidernyourself and inside the community expression of grief and hope and the rngreat shalom that you are welcome both by God and by this one rncommunity. And I was trying to write about it andrnit’s about huge themes. But it wasrnabout a one-hour service. And so Irnmade that the title, "Bilingual GoodrnFriday," just for now and I started writing about it. Butrn what it did was it made it possiblernfor me to tell the story of a mother with a 8-month old grandson asleep rnin herrnarms when he wasn’t spluttering and making loud farting noises, usually rnat timesrnof silence. And with a best friendrnwith a 40-year standing, in a community of almost entirely Hispanic rnpeople. It had a beginning, it had a middle,rnand it had an end, and half of it was in a language I don’t speak.rnrn
And so the exercise was just that, to capture it. Now, I could have written 25 pages, butrnyou personally, I know are not going to want to read it. rn And I don’t know that you’re arnChristian, I don’t know if you want to read about my family, and why I rnhavernsuch a woman as young as myself has such a young son has an 8-month oldrngrandson with her. But, so I wroternit and I wrote a really terrible first draft of it, which is always a rnfirstrnassignment. And then I went backrnand I took out the stuff that wasn’t any good, or was kind of rnoverwrought, orrnthat was preachy, or that was lies. rnAnd so what I was left with was about five pages. rn And it was, I can say, it’s notrnwell-written and I wrote it right before I left for tour, but it’s rnexactly whatrnI had hoped to create.
Recorded April 6, 2010
rnInterviewed by Austin Allenrn