Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

On Writing vs. Bird by Bird: Franzenfreude? Gender bias?

You may recall that late in 2010, Jonathan Franzen released his latest novel, Freedom, to widespread critical acclaim. Such acclaim, in fact, that two female authors, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, criticized the book review establishment for their adulation – or rather, the lack of such when female writers tackle the same topics. In the way typical of any sort of internet dust-up, their complaints spawned a new term: Franzenfreude.

Dismissive name aside, they have a point. Vida, an organization that promotes and analyzes the impact of women in the literary arts, does an annual survey of the prominence of female authors in the literary establishment, and the numbers don’t lie. In 2010 and 2011, men wrote the majority of both the books reviewed and the book reviews themselves in established publications like the New York Review of Books and The Atlantic.

In light of this, once I finished both On Writing and Bird by Bird and analyzed my opinions of them, I had misgivings. Was I placing more value on On Writing simply because it was written by a man? Did I dislike Bird by Bird – which I felt was plagued by new-age speak, unvarnished neuroses, and runaway metaphors – because it was written by a woman? I majored in Women’s Studies in university, and I’d like to think that I’d be a bit more self-aware of my critical responses than that.

I’m still not sure what to think. Stephen King and Anne Lamott started writing under different circumstances for different reasons. All I can say is that the difference is illuminating. Let’s take a look at some quotes:

Here’s Stephen King describing his creation of a high school newspaper satirizing his school’s staff:

As all sophomoric humorists must be, I was totally blown away by my own wit. What a funny fellow I was! A regular mill-town H.L. Mencken! I simply must take the Vomit [his satirical paper] to school and show all my friends! They would bust a collective gut!

As a matter of fact, they did bust a collective gut; I had some good ideas about what tickled the funnybones of high school kids, and most of them were showcased in The Village Vomit. Cow Man’s prize Jersey won a livestock farting contest at Topsham Fair; in another, Old Raw Diehl was fired for sticking the eyeballs of specimen fetal pigs up his nostrils. Humor in the grand Swiftian manner, you see. Pretty sophisticated, eh? (Page 52)

Here’s Anne Lamott describing her own writing attempts during middle and high school:

But I was funny. So the popular kids let me hang out with them, go to their parties, and watch them neck with each other. This, as you can imagine, did not help my self-esteem a great deal. I thought I was a total loser. But one day I took a notebook and a pen when I went to Bolinas Beach with my father (who was not, as far as I could tell, shooting drugs yet). With the writer’s equivalent of canvas and brush, I wrote a description of what I saw….My father convinced me to show it to a teacher, and it ended up being included in a real textbook. This deeply impressed my teachers and parents and a few kids, even some of the popular kids, who invited me to even more parties so I could watch them all make out even more frequently. (Pages xvi-xvii)

She also says this a few lines up from the excerpt quoted above:

All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging. (Page xvi)

There are similarities here – both authors wrote to gain approval of some sort. But when King wrote, it was to entertain his friends. He was doing this all for fun. When Lamott wrote, she used her skill to gain some sort of social standing among her peers. She wrote for herself, but used the success of that writing as leverage. Note that King mentions actually having friends, and Lamott doesn’t.

This lies at the heart of my enjoyment of On Writing on one hand, and my dislike of Bird by Bird on the other: I get the sense that Lamott is trying really hard to prove herself. Whenever she describes her writing process, it sounds like she goes through a lot of emotional turmoil to write something effective and lasting.

I get it – although writing is difficult and unpredictable, sometimes the results are breathtaking. But I’m sick and tired of hearing that writing is an act of Herculean audacity and emotional catharsis. It can be that way a lot of the time. But during the other times, I just want to yank the story idea out and put it on paper so it will leave me the f**k alone. I don’t need advice on the emotional aspects of writing – I need advice on how to transplant the sapling that’s taken root in my head into the fertile soil it needs to thrive.

So, there we have it. I liked the book written by a male author better because it was less emotional and more practical. I guess I’m just as bad as the literary establishment that Vida criticizes.

2012 Reading challenge, book 5: Bird by Bird

Title: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Author: Anne Lamott
Publisher: Anchor Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

When it comes to books about the craft of writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is one of the most successful and highly-regarded of the genre. I’ve seen it consistently recommended to budding writers wishing to learn about the art and craft of writing, and so I had my sights set on it for a while. When I was at the WCDR’s January breakfast meeting and picked it up off of the table run by Blue Heron Books, at least 2 or 3 other WCDR members came up to tell me that the book was amazing and that it helped them become better writers.

I bought it right away…and then proceeded to read On Writing by Stephen King instead.

Bad move. As good as this book may be for others, as life-affirming and encouraging they may find it, in comparison to On Writing, I found Bird by Bird maddening. At best, I can say that perhaps it did not reach me at the stage in my writing career when I would be most receptive to it. In general, though, I found it full of contradictory or abstract recommendations and fluffy new-age speak.

First off, let’s address one of those recommendations. Lamott advocates the value of letting story elements grow organically and allowing you, the writer, to have space to breathe, to think, and to accept changes as they come. However, she chooses the most laboured and unintuitive metaphors to illustrate this. Here’s a quote from her chapter on characterization:

One image that helps me begin to know the people in my fiction is something a friend once told me. She said that every single one of us at birth is given an emotional acre all our own… And as long as you don’t hurt anyone, you really get to do with your acre as you please. You can plant fruit trees or flowers or alphabetized rows of vegetables, or nothing at all…By the same token, each of your characters has an emotional acre that they tend, or don’t tend, in certain specific ways. One of the things you want to discover as you start out is what each person’s acre looks like. What is the person growing, and what sort of shape is the land in? This knowledge may not show up per se in what you write, but the point is that you need to find out as much as possible about the interior life of the people you are working with. (Pages 44-45)

Here’s another, a few pages further in:

Think of the basket of each character’s life: what holds the ectoplasm together – what are this person’s routines, beliefs? What little thing would your characters write in their journals…This is all the stuff that tethers them to the earth and to other people, all the stuff that makes each character think that life sort of makes sense. (Page 48)

At the core, I agree with this message: I’m all for taking the time to figure out who my characters are. But the other elements of this message rely on odd metaphors. Emotional acres? Baskets containing ectoplasm that tether you to the earth? Seriously?

Another thing that annoyed me about this book was how flippantly she discussed a potentially important writing tool: the plot treatment. The story goes that she was writing a novel and had finally worked it up into what she thought was publishable shape. When she delivered it to her editor, he told her that it wasn’t ready for publication yet – that it didn’t work, and that he couldn’t give her the remainder of her advance.

She confronted him the next day, explaining who all of the characters were, what relationships they had, and all of the backstory she hadn’t bothered to fill in for the sake of being subtle. When she was done, he told her the book she just described to him was not the same one that she had written, and that she needed to go back and write a plot treatment of the book in detail. She describes her plot treatment as follows:

I sat down every day and wrote five hundred to a thousand words describing what was going on in each chapter. I discussed who the characters were turning out to be, where they’d been, what they were up to, and why. I quoted directly from the manuscript sometimes, using some of the best lines to instill confidence in both me and my editor, and I figured out, over and over, point A, where the chapter began, and point B, where it ended, and what needed to happen to get my people from A to B. And then how the B of the last chapter would lead organically into point A of the next chapter. The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream. The treatment was forty pages long. (Pages 91-92)

In other words, she outlined her novel, which she has led us to believe is not something she normally does. Sure, she thinks about her characters and plots before she writes them down – we all do. But she has taken great pains to express the importance of remaining open to ideas as they come during the act of writing. Here are some representative quotes on the subject…

…On the climax of your plot:

In order to have this sense of inevitability, the climax of your story will probably only reveal itself to you slowly and over time. You make think that you know what this moment contains – and it makes sense to aim for something – but I recommend that you not fix too hard on what it will be. (Page 61)

…On intuition:

You need your broccoli in order to write well. Otherwise you’re going to sit down in the morning and have only your rational mind to guide you. Then, if you’re having a bad day, you’re going to crash and burn within half an hour. (Page 111)

Long story short, Lamott sounds like she likes writing without a map. The crazy thing is that when her extensively-mapped-out book was released, it was her most successful one yet. Her reaction to this success is one of pride, but also of slight bemusement:

Whenever I tell this story to my students, they want to see the actual manuscript of the plot treatment. When I bring it in, they pore over it like it is some sort of Rosetta stone. (Page 92)

Now, here’s what I don’t understand:

  1. Anne Lamott turned an unsuccessful draft into a successful one by writing a plot treatment – by applying a level of linearity and rigor to her own work that the reader senses is unusual compared to her typical writing process.
  2. This effort resulted in this book being her most successful one yet.
  3. Despite this, she does not tell her readers how to write a plot treatment themselves. She mentions that even her own students repeatedly ask to see the plot treatment she wrote, which sounds to me like she hasn’t shown them how to write their own treatments.

I don’t get it – what value lies in telling your readers about a useful writing tool, but not showing them what that tool looks like? Doesn’t that invalidate the whole point of a book about the craft of writing?

I found Bird by Bird promised a lot but didn’t deliver. I gave this book 3 out of 5 in recognition of its influence on other writers, but I have to wonder: What exactly am I missing?

Next up: Dead Men Don’t Cry by Nancy Fulda