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Taking it Bird by Bird.

Anne Lamont's wonderful book for writers, Bird by Bird, isn't a how-to book for writers. Rather, it is a book about the joys of writing as well as being an inspirational guide on the life of writing.

The book opens with an anecdote that retells a childhood story of Ms. Lamont's brother who has to write an assignment for school.

The assignment requires him to write about birds but when finally the day before the assignment has to be submitted, he cries in frustration that the task is impossible because there are just too many birds to write about.

The father comes over, takes a look at the assignment, then gives one small but important piece of advice: "Take it Bird by Bird, son. Bird by Bird." (I haven't read the book for years, so forgive me if this isn't exactly verbatim.)

It goes without saying that this is excellent advice.

Recently, I met with fellow writer, Elizabeth Tai, and we chitchatted about books, reading and writing.

After a while the Bird by Bird book came up in the conversation and I talked about how if ever I got stuck with my writing, I'd take a deep breath and chant "bird by bird, bird by bird" repeatedly like a mantra, and that would help me to get unstuck.

But when I said that I did that with my writing, I meant I did it with my writing at work and not really with my personal fiction writing. For some reason, I've always compartmentalised my writing and have separated writing for work and writing for myself. With my own writing, I am like Lamont's brother, who frequently cries in frustration that "this is impossible!"

Elizabeth has the same approach with her writing but has the smarts to actually apply the Bird by Bird technique it to any of her writing, whether it is with her work-related stuff (she's a journalist with Malaysia's daily newspaper, The Star) or with her fiction. To her, all writing is the same and the same technique can be applied no matter what you're writing.

Some things are so obvious, you need somebody else to tell it to you. For me, this is one of those things. Well, duh. Of course I can apply the Bird by Bird technique to my fiction writing. Why the heck didn't I think of it before? In my mind, many head slappings occured.

Elizabeth went on to elaborate on her writing process. She said that while writing, she takes a robotic kind of view and has a detachment towards her writing. She admitted it was a dry process but at least it gets the job done.

She has a point. As writers of fiction, we all want our fiction to be perfect, we all want to carve out that perfect novel. We labour and lament over the choice of words, idioms, metaphors, similes and other dumb bits of writerly jargon. And when we do that, the writing process grinds to a halt and it has a psychological effect on our minds and makes us think, as writers, we kind of suck. No, not just "kind of". We suck. Truly and completely. And that makes us stop writing.

But stop a moment and reconsider. Writers are only human. (Or at least most of us are. I'm betting you are human.) We're not divine beings who can churn out perfection as easily as going for a morning constitutional. (And I mean that in the euphemistic sense.)

In the end, what's important is you keep writing, no matter if you think what you're writing is utter and absolute crap. Just keep going, take it bird by bird, and go on. If you have to keep it dry and robotic, then so be it. You can always touch it up later. Until you're done and have that elusive first draft.


  1. Love this, Ted! I find it hard to turn off the editor in my head, and if I'm writing somethong that won't 'flow' or sounds lifeless I'll quit writing it rather than push through. I always want things to be perfect - or as near to perfect as possible - from the get-go. I'm also spoiled because throughout my professional writing career I usually submitted first drafts - I did read them over again and make small edits but I never did that whole rewriting thing - never seemed to need to! So I'm not used to writing a horrible first draft and then having to take time to mould it into something readable.

  2. I'm exactly like you, Sunflower! But I want to change this attitude because I feel I need to be more productive.

    I started this blog five years ago so I could log my experiences trying to write a novel... and I really haven't got anything to show for it since then! I really want this year to be the year that changes.

    Wish me luck!

  3. There was this author - I can't remember his name - who says that we should seek out "apprenticeships" to practise our writing. To him it was steamy pulp novels. He had to produce at least one a month (!!) for the publisher. This was not just extremely useful as a practising outlet, but also got rid of a lot of romanticism associated with writing a novel. So I'm going to go down this route - I'm going to set up a blog where I would churn out pulp fiction (they are fun!), zombie attack tales or steamy regency romances (again, fun!) so that I can practise, practise and practise and get rid of the emotional baggage that comes with writing a novel. Yes, tis true - good novels need time to write, but first we should practise the craft. Then we can concentrate on that big Malaysian novel. Or whatever. ;)

  4. Count me in!

    When I thought about all this, pulp fiction was definitely on top of my mind.

    Besides, so many of the greats I admire cut their teeth writing for pulp magazines so I think this is definitely a good path to take. Even if we churn out crap most of the time, we'll have so many stories written, at least some of them will turn out good right? Right?

    Well... Let's at least hope so :D


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