Jan 27

Perfectionism, Oppression, and Faith: Anne Lamott

The highly popular book by Anne LamottBird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, addresses the issue of perfectionism so well that she has helped both writers and non-writers the world over lower our unreasonable expectations of ourselves. And she does this with these three little words: “Shitty first drafts.”

Lamott states that just about all writers, even the very successful, first have to face a “shitty first draft” before it becomes something better through the process of revision. Usually there’s a second, a third, a fourth draft, and so on—whatever it takes until you feel ready to put it out there.

But if you’re not aware of this and you in fact imagine that everyone else is capable of whipping off a highly polished, i.e., “perfect,” specimen right from the get-go, you’ll probably agonize over taking the necessary first steps of your project—and probably never get anywhere. Lamott’s words:

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.

Perfectionism. Except for that “ism” part, you might think it would be a good thing—I mean, come on, it’s perfection. But, as Anne Lamott points out, there’s something oppressive involved.

In addition to writing this applies to many other things we try to accomplish in life—maybe those pesky New Year’s goals, for example. Could be an addiction you’re trying to kick. Lamott herself is in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. As heard in 12-step programs, it’s all about “Progress, not perfection.”

Lamott’s interpretation of the origins of perfectionism:

 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.

For Lamott, a big part of getting beyond perfectionism involves her faith. Not to worry—she conveys even her spiritual beliefs with her usual humorous irreverence. Nonfiction books she’s written on this topic include Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (2000), Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2006), and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith (2007).

Jan 17

“Bird By Bird”: All-Around Great Advice From Anne Lamott

One of my all-time favorite books is prolific author Anne Lamott‘s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995). Called “hilarious, helpful, provocative” by the New York Times, it’s filled with great tips for writers that apply to many aspects of life as well.

The concept she describes is a vivid example of the “one step at a time” philosophy. Below is an excerpt from her book’s introduction:

E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard…
…(T)hirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Three additional quotes from the book that are pertinent:

I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up.

Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.