The Best Advice from Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird’

bird_by_bird31I just re-read this classic of writing advice. I’ve felt a bit adrift in the direction of my writing of late, which is a common symptom between books. (I just finished Seinfeldia but it won’t be out until next year; I haven’t settled on my next book yet.) Approaching a five-hour plane ride back from Portland, I had just finished the book I brought with me (Jami Attenberg’s excellent Saint Mazie) and needed something. I downloaded Bird by Bird on a hunch that I needed it; I haven’t read it in years. I read the entire book in 24 hours and highlighted basically every other line. It read completely differently for me now. Ten years ago, I found inspiration in its practical advice to keep plugging away at my writing; this time, I laughed out loud many, many times at her more cynical depictions of living publishing life and of teaching writing classes. I also found great comfort in all of her tortured feelings about publishing. She’s hugely successful, and even she was feeling this way on her third and fourth books and beyond.

There are too many lines that I loved to list here—it would mean just retyping the whole book—but I’ll give you a few:

It is one of the greatest feelings known to humans, the feeling of being the host, of hosting people, of being the person to whom they come for food and drink and company. This is what the writer has to offer.

On writing books as a “present” to others …

[I] think of the writers who have given a book to me, and then to write a book back to them.

My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they’ve outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all.

Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t—and, in fact, you’re not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.

And my favorite, a scene from her writing class, in which she tries to present the idea of using your own negative feelings in your writing.

I read them a poem by Phillip Lopate that someone once sent me, that goes:
We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.
They stare at me like the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. … Finally someone will raise his or her hand. “Can you send your manuscript directly to a publisher, or do you really need an agent?” After a moment or so, I say, You really need an agent.

Oliver Sacks on ‘The Act of Writing’

OTM-Cover-Mod-194x300“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”

I love this quote from Oliver Sacks. It’s nice to go back to this on days when “the act of writing” is just kicking your ass. Most of us love writing, I think, because it helps us, forces us, to sort out our own thoughts. That’s why it’s so magical.

For more inspiring Oliver Sacks, check out this great post on Brain Pickings where I found this quote.

Contest: Reach Your Writing Goals, Win a Prize!

Here’s an offer I honestly believe you should not refuse: Reach your writing goal in the next week, and you may also win a prize for your trouble. YOU CANNOT LOSE.

Here’s how it will work:

1. Tell me in the comments here, via email, via Facebook, or via Twitter what your writing goal is for this week.

2. Reach that goal, and prove it by emailing me your work.

3. Get entered into my raffle, just by doing all of this.

4. Win a one-hour coaching session with me, via email or phone, if your name is drawn.

It’s that simple. Possibly win quality time with me. Definitely win the satisfaction of finishing your work. How can you go wrong?

Deadline is Friday, June 12. I’ll pick and announce a winner Monday, June 15. Go!

Sunday: Free Article-Writing Class at Word Bookstore!

Just wanted to let you all know that I’ll be teaching a free, hour-long class about article writing for Gotham Writers’ Workshop at the excellent Word Bookstore in Brooklyn. I basically run it as an ask-me-anything lightning-round Q&A about article writing. So come and ask me anything! 2 p.m., Sunday May 31, Word Brooklyn.

Why Writers Hate Editing and What We Can Do About It

I actually like editing. I find it soothing to impose order on chaos. But editing is also an easy step to skip over. I mean, you wrote. It’s written. Why not just post the thing or send it out or whatever? Right?

No! Editing is when the magic happens. It’s the reason great writers are great writers. They don’t necessarily write beautiful first drafts. They get the basics down. Then they revise, revise, revise, until it really sparkles.

You don’t have to make a big production out of this. Here are some really simple ways to make your drafts better:

1. Print out what you’ve got. There’s something about seeing something in physical form that helps you spot what’s not quite right. Maybe do it in a different font from the one you used to write it. Now take it somewhere pleasant—outside, a cafe, wherever—and read it over, marking your thoughts as you go. I like to use a marker in a color that makes me happy. I bought a large package of Crayola skinny markers for this purpose.

2. Read it aloud. You’ll hear what’s clunky because you won’t be able to say it.

3. Have some friends read it and give you feedback. I wrote about this before. It’s invaluable.

4. Get Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit. There you’ll find these tips plus a whole bunch more.

Why Writers Hate Marketing and What We Can Do About It

I wrote yesterday about how much writers hate writing. Obviously that’s a huge problem, and anyone who actually becomes a functioning writer solves it, by definition. If we want to make money at this writing, however, we encounter an even bigger problem: We need to become marketers. Many, possibly most, possibly all, of us hate this.

The marketing can catch you at every turn. You write a great novel, short story, or essay; now you have to “sell” it to someone. You want to write a nonfiction book or article; you have to propose it, and get someone to buy it so you can make it. You write and publish a book; now you need to get readers to buy the thing, lest no one ever let you write a book for them again.

If you want to get paid for your writing, the marketing never ends. Even if you get an agent. Probably even if you become a bestseller. Because you still have to get out there and sell the next thing.

Most of us just want to create, quietly, at our little computer screens. We don’t, and can’t, magically morph into salespeople. If you haven’t noticed, salespeople are often the personality inverse of many writers. Writing requires a kind of intense introversion: observing, quietly typing and retyping. Sales requires a kind of extroversion: talking to others to get them to see things your way, then hand over some money. We want to stay in our artiste bubble. We know our ideas are good. Why do we need to sell them to other people?

We don’t, unless we want to make money. That’s something many of us do want to do.

My answer to “what to do about hating writing” was to keep writing. In a way, that’s the answer here, too. Think about your marketing as writing. All of it is a form of writing.

If you have to write a query letter to pitch an article to an editor, think of it as an essay about why your idea is so awesome. Same goes for book proposals; they’re just longer.

If you have to send out an email blast about your new book, think of it as writing a letter to your readers.

If you have to give a speech, you have to write a speech. If you have to Tweet or Facebook about a project, that’s just tinier writing.

If you have to do media, well, you’re lucky. Suck it up and do it.

Why Writers Hate Writing and What We Can Do About It

girl with bookWriters hate writing, right? It’s true. We can’t stand it.

A lot of beginning writers think that hating writing means they shouldn’t be writers. I generally think it means they should. I’ve never totally figured it out, but I believe we hate writing because we love it so much. Like, we want it to be good. We know what we want it to be. Why doesn’t it just come out the way we want it to be? This is related to what Ira Glass says is the gap between our standards and how our first drafts look:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.

So we have to keep writing. It’s the only answer. Writers write. Keep writing until the gap narrows. It will.

Need Help With Your Writing Career?

Just a reminder of — or for new folks here, an introduction to — my writing coaching packages. The total breakdown:

Coaching Packages


Some nice words from folks who have worked with me before:

I can’t say enough about Jennifer. Her experience speaks for itself, but her generosity of spirit sets her apart. She is genuinely interested in other writers’ stories and ideas and invested in their success. She’s not just an acclaimed author and magazine writer. She’s a teacher. Last fall, I began tooling around with a concept for a nonfiction book and struggled to start writing a proposal: My inner critic thought, “I can’t do this!” I procrastinated. Realizing I was getting in the way of myself, I called Jen. She helped me break up my proposal into manageable parts, spreading out assignments over several weeks. She offered constructive criticism and a compassionate ear. Her class has been an invaluable education. Now I believe I can write a book, and I’m dedicating it to Jennifer. — Erin Carlson

Jennifer is an extraordinary writing coach.  She taught me the basics of narrative nonfiction in 60 minutes, more or less.  Her advice was concise and 100% practical and useable.  I bought two 6 hour coaching packages with Jennifer to complete a book proposal.  A couple weeks later, I had a meeting with the single biggest agent in the field, and a meeting with another agent at a leading agency a couple weeks later.  I couldn’t have done it without her.  To be frank, her services are astonishingly high value for the very reasonable rate charged.  — Jonathan Petts

Jennifer really helped me define concrete goals as a writer, and work on addressing them. She also provided detailed feedback that was insightful and on point. I struggle with writer’s block, so I appreciated her mentorship. — Emma Pfeiffer


We can do any of these from afar if you’re not in New York — Skype or phone works great.

Special: $399 for six hour-long sessions in the following subject areas. Click on the PayPal button below for easy purchase, or  email me for details and payment options. (I accept PayPal, Venmo, credit cards, and checks as well.)

    • Becoming a Writer … Who Writes: You know you want to be some sort of writer, but have no idea where to begin. I’ll walk you through the early stages in easy, clear steps until you’ve got a concrete plan and routine for moving forward. I’ll help you figure out what you want to write, or at least start with—an obviously critical step. We’ll work together to draft a writing routine that works for your life and even a reading list to keep that important part of being a writer on track. We’ll talk about how to incorporate basics like character, scene, and structure into whatever you hope to write. And we’ll talk about living the “writer lifestyle” on your own.
    • Finding Your Writing Voice: In these six weeks, I’ll help you get in touch with the essence of your personality that should come through in your writing. (Yeah, it’s a little shrink-y and Oprah-y, in the best possible way.) We’ll talk about voice from every angle: the lit-geeky (Kerouac, Salinger, The New Yorker) and the pop-star-ish (Beyoncé and Britney might come up). There will be weekly exercises designed to help you find your writing voice (no dancing required, though if you’re feeling it, by all means …). We’ll explore ways to get comfortable with being vulnerable and how motivation strengthens your writing. We’ll also talk about karaoke or opera, if the mood strikes.
    • Launching Your Blog: A complete how-to, from drafting your plans and finding your target audience to setting up and writing. I’ll walk you through the basics of choosing a platform and design, then work with you to fine-tune the writing before you go live. You’ll have a chance to workshop blog posts and ideas, get critiques, and make a blogging schedule. By the final session, we’ll launch your blog with five posts up and another five ready to go.
    • Launching Your Writing Career: You want to be a writer — a published one — but you don’t know where to begin. With this package, you’ll find your writing niche and learn how to get published. I’ll guide you through coming up with specific, attainable writing career goals and drafting plans to accomplish them. By the final section, you will have made progress on — and perhaps even accomplished — three specific writing and publishing goals. And you’ll have action plans for completing all of them.
    • Writing a Nonfiction Book: In this package, I’ll help you figure out your nonfiction book from start to finish: from what your book is about and why anyone would want to read it to researching it to getting an agent.  During the six weeks, we’ll work on your sample chapters, your proposal, your title, and what to do next.
    • Writing Your Nonfiction Book Proposal in Six Steps: I will walk you through the entire process of writing a nonfiction book proposal in six sessions. We’ll assess your idea, then work on a section of the proposal at each meeting, honing your material and allowing you to get feedback on every part of the proposal. This is for students who have an idea, know they want to write a proposal, and are ready to get it done.



More affordable options are available as well: Training materials, without the one-on-one consultations, for just $99. (Not available for Launching Your Writing Career, which is a customized program.) Email me for details.

Surprises I’ve Encountered in My Writing Career

from iClipArt

from iClipArt

1. When you’re publishing what you write, someone, somewhere will read it, and someone can be affected by it. This seems obvious, but when you first start writing, it’s usually for yourself. And this usually goes on long enough that it’s easy to forget anyone might ever read your words. Years later, you get a job writing for publication, and suddenly everything you type could land in front of someone’s face. When I got my first job as a reporter at The Daily Pilot — a local newspaper in Newport Beach, Calif. — I got a major lesson in how much power words could have. I wrote four stories per day about the local government and other goings-on, and I usually encountered the people I wrote about time and time again, in my professional life as well as at the grocery store (because I lived near work). Even though I was a 21-year-old barely able to figure out her own life, I suddenly had the power to do some serious damage — or good — to the careers of grown, extremely wealthy people. (Newport is one of the nation’s richest towns; see The O.C. for a fairly accurate dramatization.) This was quite stressful, but a great lesson.

2. Editors aren’t necessarily judging whether your writing is “good” or not when they make changes; they are just making your writing fit their publication. Of course, some of their edits really do make your writing better. I’ve learned a lot from great editors over my career. But just because they change something doesn’t mean it was “wrong,” once you’ve gotten past basic spelling and grammar fixes. Often they’re simply imposing their magazine or website’s style onto your piece. And a lot of publications have quite distinct voices that wouldn’t fly at other publications; editors at, say, The New Yorker would not put up with the most perfect Entertainment Weekly piece. (That’s not a slam on my former employer, just a fact.) Similarly, a Cosmo piece wouldn’t fly at Vogue. Or vice versa.

3. Good ideas don’t automatically mean sales. This is so disappointing, I know! I still kinda refuse to believe it, even as I write it now. Magazine and website editors aren’t often looking for “good” ideas in the same sense that writers tend to think of “good” ideas. I think interesting or important is good. Magazine editors have a bunch of other concerns: whether the idea reflects the idealized version of their demographic that they sell to advertisers; whether readers will think they “want” to read about a given topic; whether it will put their readers in a pleasant enough mood to buy advertisers’ products; and biggest of all, whether the headline they use to sell the story on the cover is “surprising” enough. (They also like things with numbers, and things that are “new,” as in: “57 New Ways to Get Great Abs” or whatever. Whether they’re really new, and there are really 57, is less important.) This applies, alas, even to book editors: They are marketers at least as much as they are literary mavens. They have to keep the money coming in. If they don’t like an idea, it is more likely to be from a marketing standpoint than a “good” standpoint. It’s a hard truth, but necessary to swallow if you want to make a living.

4. “Bad” for one might be “good” for another. The saving grace here? Just because one editor, publication, or publisher rejects something doesn’t mean it won’t work somewhere else. Sell it somewhere else. Take it where it’s wanted.