I was browsing in a bookshop recently when I came across Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. I’m a natural sceptic of self-help books and I’ve never been very good at taking instruction, often exhibiting a kind of dyslexia when instructed; I have turned left when asked by a driving instructor to turn right, and have asked for directions only for my mind to become non-stick as I nod back through the car window at a kindly local.
But a few things in this book caught my eye, and thankfully my wife pointed out a page in Psychologies magazine with a summary of the key points as selected by the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman. One quote suggests that ‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor’ and ‘ is one of the greatest obstacles to creativity, and to happiness in general.’ This translates practically into treating yourself with enough friendliness to persevere despite disliking what you’ve done so far. In my own writing I tend to oscillate between wild enthusiasm (what I have just written is the best thing I’ve ever written) and despondent self-criticism.
Often I persevere and work hard at something that isn’t working, but often stop if I’m not getting anywhere. Lammott suggests that most writers chronically compare their efforts with others polished results, despite the fact that even the greatest novels, paintings, poems and songs started life as what Lamott calls ‘shitty first drafts’.
I won’t be buying this book, but do think there is a place for books like this for those who can respond to them. I’ve collected advice and shared wisdom from poets and writers on my poetry quotes page where you will find a great quote from Eavan Bolan.