How Anne Lamott Helped This Woman Beat Writer’s Block

How Anne Lamott Helped This Woman Beat Writer’s Block

I hadn’t written much this summer, yet the ache to write had been my constant companion.

It hovered in my back as I packed and unpacked boxes and suitcases. It lingered in my legs as I tread water with my kids in the pool. It sat on my shoulders at family gatherings. It took up space in my head already crowded with too many thoughts about too many things that matter too little.

So to relieve the ache, I wrote.

I wrote in phrases during stolen moments of guilt while my kids stared at iPads; distracted moments watching Simone Biles and Michael Phelps be truly great at something; short moments when I thought I might find my groove. (I didn’t.)

The result: a combination of phrases that alone are sentimental and cliched — taken together are paragraphs of sludge connected by a web of confusion. I’m trying too hard; a magician looking for a rabbit without my hat.

The best stories are seemingly simple, but textured with subtle nuance and complexity. I have simple with no texture; texture with no story. I can’t find the story in anything.

When writer’s block settles in

I read.

I read haunting stories about mothers losing children and stories of summer so rich in detail, I smelled the salt in the sea air without leaving my chair. How did they do that? How were they able to create scenes so vivid, stories so poignant, they STILL stick with me?

I’ve been writing for a long time now. I’ve been here before. We writers know this spot well. Self doubt, self consciousness, jealousy, envy. These terrible friends lure you into the giant black abyss that swallows Great Ideas and Inspiration.

I waited until I felt like I might drown in all the world’s noise and all the emptiness filling my brain. Things got quiet and I heard them, as I usually do — those rhythmic messages the universe sends at exactly the right time.

Over the course of a few days, I heard it in a variety of forms, voices and manners: if you really want something, you’ll figure out a way to get it. The world was whispering directly to me, “If you want to create magic with words, Kathleen, stop looking for a rabbit and just write.”

(Re)moving the block  

I started writing this.

And then stopped.

No one cares. I don’t care.

If you really want to feel validated as a writer, then just write.

But is that it? Is that what I want? Why do I have this ache to write?

So I did like any struggling writer does and decided it was suddenly and urgently time to take all the books off the bookshelves I hadn’t touched in years, and sort through ones to keep and ones to donate. Which lead to the dust; thick blankets of grey that needed to be removed and vacuumed. There were stacks of old magazines with no obvious reason for taking up so much shelf space for so long. Did I really think I might go through them again?

Not five minutes into my new and very important project, there she was: Anne Lamott.

“Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.”

My old friend, Anne.

I first read Bird by Bird as a lost and lonely twenty something. I’d started taking writing classes at a prestigious university in Cambridge. I worked a dead end job there during the day — sending emails on behalf of VIPs, ensuring copiers had paper, and wondering if there really was such a thing as a real job.

But once a week, I’d stuff a folder full of my words and sit around a table with people far more intelligent, experienced and talented than I at the “extension school” (an appendage of prestige). I wrote terrible stories. I’m now not sure how anyone read them without wondering what in the world I was doing at that table. I needed a therapist, not a writing course. In retrospect, none of the feedback I’d gotten from fellow classmates or professors was genuinely encouraging, but I kept enrolling in class after class as if the shear amount of time spent might somehow equate to an increase in talent.

The epiphany (all good stories have one)

Anne Lamott made me feel like it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if no one ever read what I wrote. It didn’t matter if they did and hated it. It didn’t matter if it was terrible. And it certainly didn’t matter why I was writing. What mattered was that I felt better when doing it than when I wasn’t.

This post has taken days. Weeks, actually. It started to come together when I stopped thinking where I might send it; who would want to read it; and what point I was trying to make. It started to come together when I forgot about universal truths about writing and ego and creativity and typed word by word.

I don’t know if it’s any good. But I do know it felt good to write it, and maybe that’s all the validation I need.

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32 comments

    • Kathleen says:

      Thank you for reading!

      • Margaret says:

        Brilliant, Kathleen, like all things honest and specific put into written word.

        I just finally finished a short story that’d been gnawing at me for ages (LOVe your description about how writing urge/guilt hangs in one’s body).

        I don’t care if my short story ever sees the printed page, just glad to be living with the lens of a writer, to have that way of looking at the world and the small joys in capturing a few live, fresh phrases when can..

        SO thank you for putting this idea far more eloquently. Happy ink trails..

  • Your comments are so true. It’s easy to forget why we write when we get wrapped up in being validated with money or prestige, or to just to be plain noticed. You gotta love the writing first and foremost.

  • Yep. I reread Bird by Bird every few years. Mostly for the funny stories. I have a review scheduled on my blog on January 3, 2017.

  • Gina Scott Roberts says:

    Thank you. As I read this article, I found myself nodding and going, “Yeah” and “That sounds familiar” and “Been there, done that”.

    There was a time when I sat and wrote all day, the words just flowing and making me feel like I’d accomplished something even if I ended up deleting every word…because I was writing for *me* and my love of writing.

    Once getting published became part of the equation, the words slowed and, more often than I like to think, stopped flowing altogether.

    I’m going to try your solution, and get back to writing for the sake of writing. I’ll admit the idea has occurred to me on my own but knowing someone else has had not only the same epiphany but had it in response to the same self-sabotaging moves, makes it seem more sensible and achievable.

    Again, thank you.

    • Kathleen says:

      Thank you for reading! It’s always good to hear we are not alone.

      • Eva North says:

        Thank you for this. This feels like i wrote it. I love love to write, but would eventually love to write for publication, and that’s where I freeze and think what I’ve written or want to write won’t be good enough. I think I need to write this out for myself as a motivator. Have a great day and blessings to continuously writing, good or not. I’ve got a blog I’ve been trying to figure out how to use for my writing, but your post, helps me.

  • Thank you for this honest post. Sometimes just the act of writing, without worrying about the story, quality and craft of it, can be a tremendous release in itself. Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages is something in a similar vein.

  • Audrianna says:

    This is such lovely writing K-girl….you are amazing. I love this and I am starting to write out loud. So different than those 6000 word essays sat Essex!

  • Audrianna says:

    What beautiful writing K girl…you are still a gem. Recently I’ve been writing some and it’s very different than those 6000 word essays back at Essex, right?

  • iris mcclare says:

    i just finished a writing course through m.i.t and would like to submit it to the net. would anyone be interested in reading it.

  • I am currently reading this book, and I’ve learned far more then I thought I would. Thank you for this post, and the encouragement I feel at seeing that we all reach this point. I am struggling part of the time, flying part of the time and the rest of the time thinking what am I really doing and why. Thank you, this was awesome!

    • Kathleen says:

      “Struggling part of the time, flying part of the time and the rest of the time thinking what am I really doing and why.” That’s it exactly! I’m right there with you. Thank you for reading!

  • I loved reading your piece, Kathleen. It’s relatable and personal, precisely what speaks to your reader. I share your admiration and resonance with Anne Lamott, she’s been a wonderful mentor in the word.

    Keep writing…it’s what we love to do.

  • KA Dorgan says:

    Thank you!

  • c folsom says:

    This post came to me at just the right time. I had convinced myself (for the zillionth time) I couldn’t write and why bother anyway. But you reminded me that words matter. And getting them out there matters. You never know where they will land and who will be moved or even saved by them.

  • Shelby Spear says:

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this. Thank you for putting the heart of a writer on paper. And as for Anne Lamott? Legendary.

  • Denyse Shannon says:

    I could relate to all of it. I also feel so much better when I’m writing – just writing to write.

  • Betsy Palmer says:

    I knew I should be writing, but instead I chose to procrastinate by checking my email. I found your essay in The Write Life newsletter. It reminded me that this chronic bout of writer’s block I’m going through is just a lot of tangled goop in my head…I think too much and write too little. Bird by Bird baby.
    Thank you Kathleen for a spot-on piece.

  • Helen Burns says:

    Great piece. Thank you. I have been writing my first novel this year, making steady (and happy) progress, week after week. Then, 12 weeks ago, I stopped. Not a word written since and I feel I’ve lost a part if me. Although there has been a lot of other turmoil going on, I know it’s mainly self sabotage – that dreadful sense that if I write this one final block, then I have a first draft and then I might have to show some people. So, my scared ego thinks, “don’t finish it and you’ll never have to show anyone.”

    Your piece is a timely reminder that this story just needs to be written and not necessarily published. Pressure off!! Thank you.

  • Lynden Wade says:

    Really interesting, but also beautifully written, because from the heart!

  • Omigosh, I felt like you were sitting in my head when I read this! I’ve been struggling with my novel, a memoir I’m revising as historical fiction, mostly because I have to come up with a plot, that I didn’t have in my first draft, just a bunch of vignettes. So am restructuring, took a revision class. But, like you, I feel so bad when I’m not actually writing, even though I know I must do all this prep…research, outline, and READ READ READING everything I can get my hands on related to my novel. Today I checked 6 books out of the library–a record for me. I have writers block and reading is helping me. Think I’ll take another spin through Bird by Bird. Thank you, Kathleen!

    • I share your thoughts and relate to the memoir problem. I wrote it, then put it aside to study how to make it more palatable to the reader. Now I have decided my story is my own and I must enjoy the process. So I read to improve my writing, but am not pushed to mimic someone else’s view of structure. Perhaps we all go through the therapeutic stage, until we find our voice and style. The trip inward is filled with snags and stumps, so we must tread lightly.

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