Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My Bird-Brained Solution: Books for Writers


After completing the ebook versions of my print books several months ago, I struggled to keep my focus on a single writing project. Instead, my thoughts zigzagged from project to project—a photo-essay book I want to do with my brother, ideas for two memoirs, an ebook I’ve started that requires a substantial amount of research, book marketing activities, and a real estate-related ebook for my husband’s business. As a result, I felt I had accomplished little.

This dilemma of disorganization eventually led me straight back to thoughts of Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, in which she wrote:

Thirty 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. It 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.

With that inspirational reminder, I forced myself to lay all but one project aside, to close the irrelevant files on my computer desktop, and to decide that I would not go back to the others until I had the current project under control and complete. Even though I still itched to get back into the other projects, I persisted and made good progress.


Although other writing-related books may cover the same topic of setting priorities and working through projects, Lamott worded it in such a way that it stuck with me and draws me back again when the need arises. And reaching back for Lamott’s assistance got me to thinking: What other books have influenced me in the same way—meaning that the book contained a single passage, metaphor, anecdote or idea that has stayed with me and influenced my writing in a way that others did not?

Here are a few that come to mind:

Writing for Story by Jon Franklin
I always think about two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Franklin’s book when I think about story structure. Franklin gave a clear, memorable formula for structuring dramatic nonfiction, which I apply to my own work.


Writing Creative Nonfiction by Theodore Cheney
Even though I had read about passive writing in other books, it was Cheney’s words that stuck with me and influenced my writing.


Revision by David Michael Kaplan
Kaplan made me realize the importance of revision. Now, revising my writing has become the most important, fulfilling, and enjoyable part of writing. Revision is where craft really comes into play.


Writing Content by Roger Nielsen
What has stayed with me from Nielsen’s book was that I could not only write what I know (as all writers are instructed), but through research and learning, I could also write what I would like to know. That realization opened an enjoyable range of possibilities.


We can all read and hear the same topic over and over again in books and at writing conferences, but it sometimes takes the right person to write or say it in a certain way that sparks a "lightbulb moment" and causes us to finally take notice. Or maybe our brain just happened to be more receptive at that moment. Whichever the case, the knowledge sticks with us and we usually remember the book we read it in, or the person who shared it with us.

Which books do you return to for inspiration?

4 comments:

elizabethbrinton said...

Thank you for this inspiring post. Anne Lamott came to speak to us at Mills College when I was a student there. She was a great friend of one of our best teachers. "Bird by Bird" had just been published then and she introduced her talk with that story regarding her brother.
I am going to order Jon Franklin's book today.

Jennifer Rova said...

Thanks for the reminder of how to produce results when you are a writer. A good post.

Jan Cline said...

Wow, going to have to pick up a few of those. I have Bird By Bird but never finished reading it. I think ones that stands out to me are "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser and "The Art and Craft of Novel Writing" by Oakley Hall. I can so relate you your state of too many projects. Im in the same dilemma right now - having to force myself to pick on and stick with it. Still deciding. :)

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thanks Elizabeth, Jennifer and Jan. Jan, I love "On Writing Well." It is also one of my favorites. Thanks for your comments.