Last Tuesday, I sat down to write about new digital printing technology. Just the thought of it was making my brain leak out through my nose. I just couldn’t get myself to do it. So instead, I did what all writers do when they can’t write and it’s too early to drink: I picked up a book about writing. It happened to be Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
Anne is a writer and an instructor and teaches people how to write and live. Here are some tricks of how to approach any creative project that threatens your sanity.
Step 1. Looking at a blank piece of paper and don’t know where to start? Focus on one detail of the project. Just one thing that jumps out on you. She suggests to her students to write about what a school lunch was like for them. Maybe the thing you remember is wilted lettuce, or crazy lunch lady, or kids picking on you. Maybe you were the person smoking in the bleachers during lunch. Maybe you couldn’t afford lunch. Whatever that image is, it’s a start.
Step 2. Write it down as a “Shitty First Draft.” The purpose is not to show the world that you are Hemingway in the making. It’s to get everything out of your head on a piece of paper. Make clay before you can make a sculpture. Lamott used to write restaurant reviews, and for every three-page reviews she did something like eight pages of brain download. Once it’s out of your head, you can start shaping it into a much better second draft and a stellar third.
Step 3. Make friends with your Inner Perfectionist. Admit it. You love getting criticism from this fellow because it pleases your inner masochist. If you’re ready to move this toxic relationship to a more productive place, start thinking about this person who says “you suck” as a friend who usually reads your work or gives you good advice. You come to them with a project and they say, “Way to go! There are a couple of issues but you can fix them later. For now, you rock!”
Now that you’ve figured out a place to start, downloaded your great big brain and befriended your inner perfectionist, how do you tackle a project that is still daunting? Lamott gives an example of her brother who was supposed to write a report about birds. He had three months to do it and of course, was doing it on the last night. As he sat at the kitchen table surrounded by mountains of books on birds, he asked his dad how he was ever going to get through this. Dad put his arm around the boy and said, “Bird by bird. Just take it bird by bird.”