Writing with Annie and Anne

A quote from Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life is taped to the wall near my desk: “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.”

Each time I sit down to write, I’ve already forgotten how I propped myself up the day before. In need of another hit of encouragement, I read it again.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, “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 sense of trust and wonder so intact. Well, I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and a structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.”

I’d like in the club. I’m ready. I write while replaying the words of Annie and Anne.

I allow myself to mold an ugly first draft with Lamott’s blessing. “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere,” she says.

Once the first draft is down, I step back in horror as I notice its splotches and lopsided shape.

“Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? And, Can I do it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural, it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays, and poems have this problem, too – the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed.” says Dillard.

For a moment I think I’ve hit a dead end – the spot in the wall where I cannot hammer a nail – and that I’d better pack up. But Dillard goes on.

“He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he.”

And Lamott walks in and agrees.

“Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip,” Lamott says.

Now Annie and Anne are both standing there with unmoved expressions that say, “let’s just watch and see what she does.” I get out of my chair. I walk around the room. I breathe. I return to my seat, wish myself luck, and start sorting. I fiddle with the words, deleting and rearranging sentences. I continually give myself permission to keep playing. An imaginary time limit, one deemed reasonable, watches over my shoulder.

More frequently than I’d like, I follow this process of coaxing myself along with quotes and tidbits and friendly reminders of why I’m even trying. But other times my place is clear.

“There are moments when I am writing when I think that if other people knew how I felt right now, they’d burn me at the stake for feeling so good, so full, so much intense pleasure,” Lamott says. “I pay through the nose for these moments, of course, with lots of torture and self-loathing and tedium, but when I am done for the day, I have something to show for it.”

 

Cara Lombardo is a writer and a CPA.

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