Writing advice from Anne Lamott

If you’re struggling to put pen to paper, consider this kick in the keister from a venerated novelist.

Anne Lamott is known for her musings on grace and “Traveling Mercies,” but she has no time for procrastination.

In a recent conversation at TED’s headquarters, Lamott offered 14 tips for writers to overpower excuses with creative juices. Her first tip, to “set your sights small,” is an exhortation to stiff-arm the enormity of the blank page.

“You don’t have to write a whole book on birds,” she says. “Just pick one bird.”

Lamott then advises to “think of your writing as a pond.” The idea is to create an ecosystem for your narrative. She explains:

I picture a novel or a work of nonfiction as a lily pond. I buy poster-sized sheets of graph paper, and I’ll start at one end and draw a big circle. I put what I know into that lily pad, like who the characters are, what this is going to be about, and when and where this is happening. Then I’ll begin filling out a few of the lily pads that I’m going to land on.

The next tip: Don’t fear the copy reaper—that is, the delete button. Lamott says:

If you write something and it doesn’t work, it does not mean you are a morally inferior person. It just means you need to take it out and try again.

Along those same lines, your first draft will stink. That’s fine, because a “terrible first draft is the secret of life.”

Of course, lousy first drafts are worthwhile only if you pass them through the fires of scrutiny. Lamott says to “find a couple critics you love” who will provide brutally honest feedback. She elaborates:

Everybody needs two people who respect them and love their work and will give you the gifts of honesty and help. One of my people often says, “I’m going to love this. But I think your first two pages are throat clearing, and I didn’t know why you summoned me to sit by the campfire to listen to your story until I got to the very bottom of page three.”

Here are more tips she offers to aspiring writers:

  • Imagine the book you dream of finding, and then bring it to life.
  • You’ll get so much more out of writing than just a manuscript.
  • It will probably take some trial and error before you find your voice as a writer.
  • Don’t wait to be “in the mood” to write—unless you want to wait forever.
  • If all else fails, send Stevo Lamott a letter. (Pretend you’re writing to a loved one.)
  • Waste more time and more paper.
  • Try to be your own coach.
  • Think of your writing as a gift to the world.

The “Bird by Bird” author has plenty more creative nuggets to dispense. Click here for her inspiring TED Talk—which covers more practical life and writing advice—and you can read more about her recent TED interview here.

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