Thursday, May 5, 2011

On Reading And Writing


Fifteen years after everyone else in the world, I finally read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.  Is it overwrought to say the book is 'seminal'?  Too bad. 

If you haven't read it (or heard of it) it's a lovely, hilarious, heart-warmer of a book that offers "instructions on writing and life."  I've been reading it grinningly on the sofa, nodding along with everything she writes and fantasizing about being her when I grow up. 

Here's how she ends the book:
Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.  They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.  When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.  We are given a shot at dancing with, or at at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again.  It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea.  You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on the ship.

Isn't that just lovely?

I've been a reader and writer since always.  My parents were both primary school teachers and most evenings after dinner, we'd read.  Even before I could read by myself, I remember sitting next to my dad on the plaid living room sofa listening to him read The Witch of Blackbird Pond or The Bronze Bow.  I loved the idea of being an author and wrote many, many stories prominently featuring families of talking mice.  Or frontier families.  Or families of talking frontier mice.

I loved signing up for the summer reading program at the library and I seem to remember my parents actually encouraging relatives to buy me sports equipment for Christmas because I was "spending too much time inside."  I definitely remember that I wasn't allowed to read until my room was clean.

I still read voraciously and I love finding those sorts of books that are so good I wish I could read them for the first time again.  I (obviously) still write constantly, though these days my writing are more non-fiction than frontier-mice based.

How many of you guys consider yourselves writers?  What's your writing form of choice? What are your favorite books?  Mine are Running In the Family, We Were The Mulvaneys, Cloudstreet and just about everything by Kurt Vonnegut and David Sedaris.

22 comments

  1. Oh no! I tried to submit a comment and it disappeared. I'll try again:

    My mom gave me Bird by Bird when I was fourteen or fifteen. I wanted to be a writer. I remember being amazed that an adult could be so funny and honest, the first time I read it. It is the only book that has gone with me every time I've moved since then and the pages are yellowing and dog-eared on my copy.

    And yes, as I just finished a graduate program in creative writing, I do consider myself a writer. Short stories, mostly, but also the occasional essay and I am contemplating the seemingly inevitable novel.

    I have a HARD time with the favorite books question. Some constant favorites are anything by Margaret Atwood (especially Moral Disorder), Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.

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  2. Hi Sarah,
    I really like this post. Probably because I really like to read. And write. Although I’ve had a journal since I was 13 and have had articles published since I was in university, I never really considered myself a real writer. To me, a real writer was someone who earned their entire living from writing so since I only made small amounts from writing, I didn’t think of myself a writer until this year when I started my blog inspite of the fact that I still make very little from writing. I think calling myself a writer changed because I did some soul searching at the beginning of this year and decided that writing was what I wanted to do with my life and though it doesn’t pay much now, I’m determined it will pay much more in the future. Enough to live off. So I’ll be a real writer no matter what way I decide to look at things :-)

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  3. Bird By Bird is my favorite writing book, hands down. Also, I MET ANNE LAMOTT and totally humiliated myself (she's seriously my biggest idol) but that's a story for another day (maybe in July when we hang out?!). BUT...I was a total reader as a kid, to the point where my "punishment" when I was younger was no bedtime reading and that was the actual worst thing ever. I've kept a journal since I was 7 and literally have boxes and boxes of these treasures. It's humiliating but also AWESOME to have records of my thoughts from the time I was a little girl. I force my students to read a book of their choice for 15 minutes a day in my class and try to point them in the direction of something they might like. I hope to inspire a few future readers somehow. My favorite books are The Great Gatsby, She's Come Undone, and To Kill A Mockingbird and about a million more.

    Clearly, I could talk about this forever, haha.

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  4. Bird by Bird is one of those books that a buy every time I see it in a thrift store because I feel everyone should read it. I just pass it out to friends and tell them to keep it. She talks about writing because it is her passion, but her philosophies and wisdom can be applied to anyone's passion. I LOVE THIS BOOK!

    I'm a journaler. I write mostly to work through the mess of my life. As far as reading goes, I will read anything. I just finished I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith which is a sweet story of a 17 year old girl growing up in a crumbling castle in England. Her father was a prolific writer but since returning from prison has let his talent, family, and home fall into ruin. It's her journey about first love and real life; it's such a great and fast read.

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  5. I've always been an avid reader. My mom said I read like my grandmother did and I loved that I shared that connection with her. It's only recently that I've actually considered myself a writer. I've been writing poetry, essays, blogs, journal entries for most of my life and I'm just starting to realize that I'm good at it. :)

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  6. I was just like you as a kid- I would stay up with the light on next to my bed and read for hours after my bedtime! In the summers our parents made us have "outdoor days" meaning none of the neighborhood kids were allowed to play inside. Now my niece (age 6) just started reading the Ramona Quimby series and my sister (her mom) is texting me pictures of her reading in the funniest places - she is totally obsessed! The best was a picture of her sitting in a circle with the other girls on her soccer team during a water break at practice and everyone was drinking water and chatting, and she was reading a book. So cute :)

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  7. Oh yes, I was a bookworm child. My mom would send me up to clean my room and she'd come up half an hour later to find me sitting on a pile of stuff (my mother's preferred method of room cleaning involved putting everything in a giant pile in the middle of the room and putting things away from there. If my sister & I were being especially lazy about it, the pile was moved onto our beds), reading a book. In the summer I used to smuggle books out under my shirt when my mom would send me out to play. I'd read anything you put in front of me, books, newspapers, the backs of cereal boxes. All the librarians knew me and I had to have my library card replaced twice because it was so worn out. In 4th grade, our classroom was getting an updated set of encyclopedias and our teacher told us that anyone who came in with a note from their parents could have the old set. I was the only one with a note and I toted them home in a little red wagon.

    I definitely identify myself as a reader, but I have a harder time identifying myself as a writer, even though it's something I like to do. I majored in journalism instead of English because I thought it would be a more useful degree that would still allow me to write. But I'm not exactly using any of my education while passing out Diet Coke & cookies at 35,000 feet. I started my blog as an excuse to wear nice outfits and to teach myself how to write about my outfits in an interesting manner. I'm still working on both parts and I definitely don't self-identify as a "writer" of any sort. I feel too self-conscious to really tell people about my blog because it feels very narcissistic. "Why, yes, I take pictures of myself every day and put them on the internet and talk about them."

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  8. When I was little, my grandmother worked at a bookstore ....
    At the bookstore, once a certain amount of time passed, the bookstore could tear off the covers of the unsold paperback books and mail them to the publisher for credit.
    But they had to throw away the book ...
    Or in my case, collect them all in grocery bags and give them to me!
    True story: Every 6 months or so I would get multiple grocery bags FULL of young-adult-paperback-without-a-front-cover books.

    Needless to say, I've always been a reader.

    xo

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  9. On Beauty by Zadie Smith is another great writing book up there with Anne's.

    I consider myself a writer...a goofy un-published one, but a writer nonetheless.

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  10. I loved loved loved reading this!

    I have secretly considered myself a writer for quite some time, but am only now encouraging the passion and sharing my voice.

    Thank you for posting <3

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  11. It's funny, it was just the other day that Mr Smaggle introduced me to someone and said that I was a writer. I was mortified but then the person asked where I write I was able to say Cosmo, Cleo and rattle off a few websites too.

    So I guess that means I'm a writer. :-)

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  12. I can identify with this so much! Reading was my life when I was little, and still is to this day. I have also started writing but since I haven't submitted anything I guess it's just a hobby :p
    My favourite books are The Book Thief, Of a Boy, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Les Miserable and Great Expectations.
    I will have to check out yours!

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  13. I was befuddled when my elementary school sent out newsletters with articles like "How to Get Your Child to Read More." I couldn't imagine anyone having that problem...my parents' problem was trying to figure out how to get me to read less!

    I purposely let other kids win reading contests. I was afraid if I turned in my actual reading log, the librarian wouldn't believe me.

    I knew writing was an undeniable part of my life when I ended up majoring in English, despite attempts to convince myself to choose a more "practical" major.

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  14. I will be adding this to my summer reading list for sure!
    Finding your blog is sucking up so much precious revision time but in the best of ways, Like it loooots!
    http://mcqueenismymorphine.blogspot.com/

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  15. I love, love, love Bird by Bird. As I train for a big bike ride, I keep thinking about that philosophy - just start with one bird. I also adore Traveling Mercies, which is one of the best books about religion ever, in my opinion.

    As a kid, I would be so into my books that my mom would frequently walk into my room to find me half-dressed, sitting on my bed reading a book. She started fining me a quarter for every time I was reading that I was supposed to be getting ready for school or something else. My career plan in 3rd grade was that I was going to be a marine biologist in the summer and a famous novelist in the winter. As I'm now a science communicator with a strong emphasis on writing, I think it's about as close as you can get to a 3rd grade career aspiration.

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  16. Nice work on the blog post! Really appreciate that big time! Keep up
    the good work on the blog!I really really wish this would work.

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  17. This is my favorite book on writing as well, I ADORE Anne Lamott! Her novel Blue Shoe is also really wonderful - but all her books are lovely. A favorite quote of mine from Bird by Bird :
    "The very first thing I tell my students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. "
    — Anne Lamott
    great post!
    xoxo

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  18. What about Grace (Eventually)? I just read it last weekend. Just about cried at every chapter. So good!

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