There are simple joys in life and autumn seems to unleash them for me. There is something about the feeling of it that gets into your bones and chills you in that way that makes you feel alive not cold. It’s getting dark earlier. This puts a damper on running sometimes, because I really like a good 6pm run; but it also means jackets and sweaters. Fall is great, because its cooler, but you can add a simple layer of clothing and become instantly comfortable. The winter destroys this pleasure, trading in the discomfort of being cold for that of being bundled up to the point of physical discomfort (I’m speaking from the experience of the mid-west winter. It’s a bit different in Southern California). Summer is the opposite. There’s no way to de-clothe in order to be cooler. Even if you’re naked, you’re still boiling lava hot.
Tonight, I sat in my courtyard reading Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. I can’t imagine a better fall book, the same way On the Road takes on particular charms when read while traveling. You can’t help but feel little tinges of melancholy in autumn, or at least I can’t. But with a good book or two (Infinite Jest is quickly becoming an all-time favorite) little lonely moments don’t have to be all about loneliness. They kindof make me smile in a weird, fall way. It feels like me. It’s the same with writing. Sometimes you need to just stop and bask in aloneness. This is why I prefer living alone. The sounds of the place become exclusive to you.
I miss school. I miss classes. I miss writing papers. But because Bird by Bird is written in sortof a classroom lesson-ish style, taken directly from things she says when teaching writing, it feels sortof right. Sitting outside, feeling it getting dark, my feet in the hot-tub, not boiling, but perfectly counteracting the slight, oncoming chill of evening. It’s not the same if I’d read it in the summer, in blazing heat. I would’ve felt somehow out of place.
The advice is great, too. I’d call her writing effortless if she didn’t spend so much time in the book explaining how painstaking it is for her to write. The writing is comfortable and clear and really damn good. She doesn’t try to impress the reader with swirling passages of confusing writing that deconstructs the process of it. It’s practical, good advice. She talks about the dangers of trying to write perfectly.
Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived… Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.
She is funny and honest and has a chapter called “Shitty First Drafts,” in which she basically explains that you have to get through them to get on to the good stuff. You have to just do, just write, and then, later, after you’ve stopped pre-judging it, you can go back and find those few things that are good about what you’ve written. And those become what you write about. You probably toss the rest of it, but it’s worth it for those sparks you’ve created.
The year after I graduated from college, I dedicated myself to writing a screenplay. I’d written a few before that, but I wanted a new one. I sat down to write a horror movie, but what came out was a 250 page behemoth of a psychological thriller that was about guilt and death and violence and love and, for some reason, also about high-schoolers and teachers and philosophy. It’s not very good. Not at all. I didn’t really pre-write much, didn’t map it out in my mind or my notebook. I had the beginning and I had a character, and I thought those would bring me through. Well, that’s just silly. No one has read this screenplay. My friend BJ convinced me to give him a copy, but luckily that PhD program has kept him too busy to read it. I haven’t touched the screenplay in 2 1/2 years, I’ve moved on. If I go back, it will be a Page 1 rewrite, and I don’t know that I have enough interest in the story for that. But I have no doubt if Anne Lamott or anyone else read it, they would instantly declare it a shitty first draft.