Anne Lamott is a funny gal. It would take more than my ten fingers and ten toes to count how many times I laughed aloud reading through her book on writing, Bird by Bird. One of my favorite examples of her odd wit occurs during the introduction. She is working on this terrible short story about a bald psychiatrist named Arnold who is treating a depressed female writer and her younger brother, when suddenly he gives up and starts quacking like a duck to try to get them to laugh. Lamott kept sending snippets of this piece to her father’s agent, and each time the agent would reply with something along the lines of “Well, it’s really coming along now.” Shortly thereafter, her father passes away. At her father’s urging before he died, Lamott begins to write about the experience. After some work, she sends off a few chapters to the same agent. As Lamott writes, “But I think [my father’s agent] must have read them in a state of near euphoria, thrilled to find herself not reading “Arnold.” She is not a religious woman by any stretch, but I always picture her clutching those stories to her chest, eyes closed, swaying slightly, moaning, “Thank ya, Lord” (page xxiv). I think Anne Lamott and I would get along well.
As someone who is currently working on a humorous trio of short stories from my childhood that I would eventually like to expand into a collection, I found this piece relatable and down-to-earth (which is an ever increasing rarity). Though the advice in this book is much more useful when it comes to my personal creative writing endeavors, I did find myself pondering how I could apply some of her methods to my future high school English classroom. In this sense, there were two key ideas that I ran with.
1.) Shitty First Drafts
Vulgar, yes. Useful, yes. The idea of creating shitty first drafts is a prominent theme throughout the entirety of this book. Every person who has ever written some sort of paper in the entire universe knows that the first draft is (87.4% of the time) shitty. Though it sounds bad, the shitty first draft is a necessary part of the writing process. As Lamott states, “If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational grown-up means” (page 23). The shitty first draft is a time to get ideas on paper without worrying about how those ideas are being conveyed, and any teacher worth their salt knows that is the ideas that truly matter. One way to get kids accustomed to the importance of shitty first drafts might be something akin to a free write. Whenever we start a new writing project, research or creative or otherwise, I might have my students spend a good 15 to 20 minutes free writing about the thoughts that pop into their head. Then I might have them spend another 15 to 20 minutes focusing in on one of those brainstormed ideas, writing whatever comes to mind with that topic. It’s all about accessing thinking in its purest form, and saving the worrying of refinement for later.
In addition to shitty first drafts, Lamott dedicates a good deal of page space to both elements of story and then writing the story. These include: character, plot, dialogue, setting, writing groups, and having someone read your draft. Again, at first glance these topics seem better suited for creative writing. They are. However, their association with creative writing got me thinking about workshops. Some of my favorite courses I’ve taken in college have been creative writing courses, and in those creative writing courses my professor has implemented a technique called workshopping. Essentially, workshopping is when a handful of students at a time present one piece each to the class. The class then provides constructive feedback concerning the piece. Naturally, this is easier to implement when class periods are three hours long. However, I think it is definitely still doable in a secondary classroom. No matter what type of writing my students are working on, I would like to dedicate a few days to workshopping for each assignment. This way my students can gain insight to their writing through a valuable combination of peer and instructor feedback.
Maybe I’ll utilize more from Lamott, like having my students write about school lunches when they are stuck. Heck, I can tell you right now that I could probably write a ten page essay alone on the wonderful (no sarcasm, I sincerely love the stuff) mandarin orange chicken and homemade croutons my hometown school made. Who knows, though? I can’t guarantee any specific techniques, but there are two important concepts Lamott has taught me that I will keep forever. One, write. This goes for both myself, and my students. One can’t utilize any writing strategies if they don’t write in the first place. Take it bird by bird. The second, and perhaps most important, is laugh. Laugh at myself. Someday when I pull an Arnold at the front of the classroom, I’ll just laugh.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. New York City: First Anchor Books, 1995. Print.