Bird by Bird

 By Ellen Leventhal

Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

What a simple and brilliant statement. Anne Lamott (my new pretend BFF whom I have never met) tells a story of a time when her brother was overwhelmed with the enormity of a task before him. He had to write a report on birds that was due the next day, and he was far from ready to tackle that task. This young man was surrounded with books and paper, but had no idea how to get started. The task was huge, but his wise father put his arms around the boy and gave him some sage advice. “Bird by bird, buddy,” he said. “Just take it bird by bird.” So simple. So brilliant.

That statement is the basis for Anne Lamott’s bestseller, Bird by Bird; Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Ms. Lamott (Oh, since she’s my pretend BFF, I’m going to call her Anne).. Anne starts her book on writing talking about reading. She came from a family where reading was a priority and going to the library was a weekly event. Her father was both a reader and a writer. Makes sense to me. In my world, reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. I read about writing, and I write about reading. And writing.  They can’t really be split. In fact, according to Anne, “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” She’s really smart, that imaginary pal of mine.

As a teacher, I encourage my kids to mark up their books. Read, think, and write. I want to see notes and highlighting and question marks all over their books. Of course, there is the question of the ownership of said books, so I hand out scads of sticky notes in the beginning of the school year. I wouldn’t want the kids to deface someone else’s property. I admit that I’ve seen my share of body parts drawn on these notes, but I have also seen lots of great notes. One of my favorite things is when a sticky note (or a margin) has a comment relating a passage to another book. One of my favorite notes was “Like when Leslie dies in Bridge to Terabithia, but this guy didn’t do something stupid.” This was a real sticky note comment. To be honest, that remark took about five sticky notes, but still, I like it. The next thing that happened almost brought tears to my eyes. Not because I was still mourning Leslie Burke (although every time I read that book I keep hoping for a different ending), but because this child then said, “Look at the poem I wrote about it.” Reading and writing intertwined again.

Bird by Bird has great advice for life in general, but I started reading it to get me through some sticky patches in my writing life. Anne’s insight has gotten me unstuck when writer’s block was my constant companion. Her small assignments helped me find focus in my manuscripts. And her tip of looking at first drafts as Polaroid pictures has validated my writing.  She says that writing a first draft is like a watching a Polaroid picture develop. You’re not really supposed to know what it will look like until it finishes developing. Since I’m not always sure where my characters will take me, this is comforting. Sometimes once the Polaroid is developed, I find a minor character lurking behind a major one and decide his life story is the one begging to be told.

Reading, writing, and life in general can be difficult at times. Anne Lamott talks about “Sh*&^y first drafts.” (Only she spells the whole word out. This is a G rated blog.) Let’s think about writing as life. Just like first drafts, we should be allowed do overs in life. And if we take life challenges one step at a time, bird by bird, maybe they won’t seem insurmountable.

Thanks, pretend BFF. Whereas some “self-help” books, tell the reader to get up off her chair and just do something, this book, filled with humor and insight has encouraged me to get back in my chair and write. And just take it bird by bird.





In Praise of Mistakes: Confessions of Recovering Perfectionist

by Monica Shaughnessy

pink-eraser-174736-mAs my daughter flipped through my sketch book the other day, she chided me for having so many “mess-ups.” “I’m not putting any scratchy doodles in my book,” she said. “I’m only putting in the stuff that’s perfect. The stuff you could frame.” I got all Yoda on her, and (gently) told her that it’s okay to make mistakes every now and then, because if you don’t, how will you ever arrive at the perfect stuff?

As a recovering perfectionist, that was an extremely hard thing for me to say, much less believe. But it’s advice that holds true for just about everyone but surgeons, nuclear engineers, and brake repairmen. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that anyone undertaking a creative endeavor, be it painting, composing music, or writing a book, should make mistakes. If you don’t, you’re not leaving the door open to true genius. But creative wisdom comes from knowing when your crazy, messy projects are ready for public consumptions and when they should be locked away.

During my years as a writer, I’ve seen two extremes: people who rush to show the world something that’s not ready and people who hang on to their projects for way too long. Usually, the dabblers and the hobbyists can’t wait to show everyone what they’ve done. (Look! Look! I just wrote a book on how to dye Easter eggs with onion skins and antifreeze! It’s three pages long and only $5.99!) One cursory glance at Smashwords* will tell you that. But the writers who are in it for the long-haul are the ones that tend to wait for perfection. Why? Because they care about the words and the story more than the fleeting thrill of the upload or submission. Yet perfectionism is counterproductive to growth.

I have a book in my published collection (I won’t tell you which one), that I rewrote for FIVE years. I added characters. I took them out. I revised the plot at least three times. I upped the age of the protagonist. I lowered it. Everyone I asked had an opinion, and they all got incorporated into my story. It never got published. Finally, I called B.S. on everything, got a clear vision of how the story should really go, and rewrote the darn thing one. last. time. I learned and re-learned on that manuscript. But it was only when I stopped intellectualizing the story and approached it with a gut feel that I arrived at that confident conclusion: I’m done. Had I not finished it–and I mean really finished it–I might still be stuck in neutral, chasing that unattainable goal of perfection.

If, like me, you struggle occasionally with perfectionism, here’s a checklist for how to know when to stop working on your project:

1. Each successive round of feedback doesn’t make your project better, it just makes it different.

2. Your peers are absolutely sick of this particular story/song/work of art and can no longer tell you what to change. (hint: because nothing needs to change)

3. When you look at your work, your gut reaction is pride or, at a minimum, a sense of completion. (I didn’t say your intellectual reaction)

4. Your mind has begun to drift to other things you could be working on because your subconscious has already worked out all the issues it could on your current WIP.

You’ll notice I didn’t say that your work is ready to sell or display. Because at the end of the creative process, you may still have something that’s altogether “messy” and unacceptable. And you may need to set it aside and work on something else. But understand that your effort was not wasted. The next project you undertake will be with a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, of which skills and competencies you possess and which ones you don’t. That’s growth.

Now go out there and make a huge mess of things. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

*I love Smashwords, okay? I think it’s a great platform and its publishing tools are superior, in many ways, to Amazon. And scads of serious writers use them as a sales outlet. But have you seen some of the stuff for sale on that site? I mean, come on.


Your turn. Are you a perfectionist? Do you have any trusted methods for figuring out when to stop working on a project? Do you go with your head? Or your gut?