Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bird by Bird

There's a wonderful writing book by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird. The author explains that when she was young, her brother was assigned to write a report about birds, but he put it off until the last minute, then panicked about how he was ever going to write such a long report in one day. His father told him to just write it "bird by bird." Ms. Lamott took that advice to heart, and that is how she keeps the enormity of writing a novel from overwhelming her--she doesn't think about the whole novel, just one scene, or one chapter, or even one good description, at a time. (I hope I am doing the book justice; it's been a while since I read it but I remember that it is wonderful.)

I am both a writer and a birdwatcher, and this month I've had the pleasure of spending a month in "the birdiest spot in the country," the Texas Gulf Coast near Corpus Christie. I'm really only a novice birdwatcher, so when I came here almost every bird I saw was foreign to me. I would walk along the beach and feel overwhelmed by the number and variety of shorebirds; I would stare at a bird, then check the field guide and find half a dozen different birds that looked just like it.

But gradually, with much studying, I started to sort them out. I learned what markings to look for, the length and color of the beak and legs, the way it flew or fed. Now I can spot and identify dozens of water birds with a mere glance.

To bring this back to writing, I think we learn to write a novel the same way. At first, all the terminology is baffling and overwhelming; internal conflict vs. external, motivation, pacing, point of view, internal dialogue, transition, scene and sequel, high concept, theme, three-act structure, hero's journey. If you try to take it all in while you're writing your first book, you'll drive yourself crazy.

But if you study just one aspect--point of view, maybe--and you read different books and passages looking for examples, suddenly it clicks. You'll understand point of view the rest of your life, just like I'll recognize a marbled godwit on any beach next time I see one. Pretty soon, you're incorporating all those esoteric writing terms into your stories without even thinking about it, because it's become automatic.

I could probably take the analogy further; learning to cook is the same way. Probably learning to sew or garden--bird by bird.

(By the way, this blog is very late because I was out birdwatching all day! My bad.)

Happy New Year to you all,



Ellen said...

Glad you enjoyed your birding trip to my town. I don't do a lot of watching anymore but Corpus Christi is the place to do it. We even have special events for birders. Hope you come back.

Estella said...

I love birdwatching! So glad you enjoyed it, too.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm in your backyard!

I find it relaxing and competitive at the same time as I try to beat my daily count.


Lily said...

I never did bird-watching!

Happy New Year!

Ellen said...

Kara -- welcome to my backyard hope you enjoy it as much as I do. I love being able to head for the bay front or the beach and just enjoy the quiet and nature.