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Pep Talk from Anne Lamott

photo of Anne Lamott

Dear Writer,

Every year I teach a writing workshop at Book Passage in Corte Madera, for 175 people of all ages who have always wanted to write their stories, novels, memoirs. They are very enthusiastic and absolutely bursting with ideas and material.

But almost none of them ever get serious about writing.

Writing is hard. I would personally rather do almost anything, but by the same token, nothing fills me with more relief and gratitude for having gotten that day’s work done.

We all have the same roadblocks and enemies—perfectionism, and the internalized bad voice of criticism and derision, probably spoken decades ago by beloved and trusting people. Thanks, Uncle Ed.

Plus, everyone is half crazy with all that they have to get done before they can set aside an hour a day for writing.

Individually, they explain to me why they can’t really start their novel or memoir right away but as soon as they retire, get their child out of the house (good luck), move out of the city, whatever, then they will start.

I always pat them nicely and say, “No, you won’t. You either start now, or it is not going to happen for you, and you are going to wake up at seventy years old (or eighty, if they are already seventy) filled with sorrow that you let your dream, your passion, gift, fall by the wayside. You start now, as is.”

“As is” is the portal to creation, to new life. “As soon as” is a form of delusion and therefore soul death.

As is, with writing, means you find a desk or a table where you promise yourself, as a debt of honor, to write one page or passage or for one hour a day. (Well, let’s say five days a week.) You start somewhere, anywhere. It doesn’t matter where, because it will almost certain go badly. It is supposed to. But maybe you can describe, badly, the place where your book takes place.

Close your eyes and see if there is a movie playing on the black screens behind your eyes. Then scribble down the details of this movie, all the colors and foliage or furnishing.

Maybe you can see one of your character’s faces: how she tucks her head when she enters a room, like a shy duck; or how he takes on the persona of a bank president, arrogant and amused and yet pretending to care, even at meetings with his child’s homeroom teacher.

Maybe you can see his child’s face—the pride she takes in her father’s potency, or the shame.

So describe that to us on paper, in words and images, imperfectly.

That’s all. One small moment, face, locale, conversation at a time, maybe overwrought or trying to sound like Hemingway or perhaps with a bit too much magical realism for the suburb your characters inhabit.

People will help you make it better later. For now—as is—out of practice and with only the vaguest idea what your story is about, describe one small piece of it for us, now, today, the best you can.

Set the habit. One hour, or one page, one passage, one day at a time. Victory! Go get ‘em.

Anne Lamott is the author of The New York Times bestsellers Hallelujah Anyway; Help, Thanks, Wow; Grace (Eventually); Traveling Mercies; Bird by Bird; and Operating Instructions. She is also the author of seven novels, including Imperfect Birds and Rosie. A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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