Driving at Night in the Fog: Insights from Anne Lamott

getting started memoir mindset memoirs Feb 08, 2024
Driving at Night in the Fog

The hardest part about writing a memoir is getting your first draft done. I know this because I spent about five years tinkering with my first draft. You start with energy and good intentions. You commit to writing every day. But as time goes on, you start to lose focus. What was I trying to write about? Life barges in and demands your attention. I’ll write tomorrow. Today I must focus on my deadline at work.

Gradually, you start to let go of your dream to write the story that’s been burning in you forever. Occasionally you open the draft on your computer and recommit to starting over. But every time you do this, it takes so much time to reorient yourself to your story. Where did I leave off? What was I trying to say here? It’s a vicious cycle, stopping and restarting.

Bird by Bird

Some of the best advice about how to get started writing is in Anne Lamott’s classic writing guide, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anne Lamott spoke at a recent Author! Author! event sponsored by my town’s library foundation.

Anne Lamott at Bend High School, Bend, OR, February 2, 2024

To a packed auditorium, she recounted some of the stories from Bird by Bird, which still feel as relevant and instructive today as when she first published them nearly 25 years ago.

For the uninitiated, the title Bird by Bird refers to a story she tells about her brother and dad:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

In the same way, Lamott—and all writers—get books done word by word. 

One-Inch Picture Frame

According to Lamott, writing word by word starts by filling a one-inch picture frame—painting a picture with words one tiny scene at a time. “You just look through the one-inch picture frame,” she said. “When I teach little kids, I always have them close their eyes because there's a screen on the back of your eyelids and you can see things in it. You can see locations, you can see settings, you can see what the people look like.”

Filling a one-inch picture frame gives you a way to get started when you’re not sure what to write. Borrowing from E.L. Doctorow, Lamott says, ”It's like driving at night with the headlights on. You can only see little ways in front of you, but you can make the whole journey that way.”

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” — E.L. Doctorow

Writing prompts are perfect to help you focus your writing to fill a one-inch square. Download my free 31 Memoir Prompts PDF to get started.

Sacred First Drafts

Lamott famously encourages people to write “shitty first drafts” (aka SFDs). How could they be anything but rough when you’ve never tried to write your story before? First drafts are messy and unruly. But they’re also sacred. And writing a memoir is an especially vulnerable, risky act. Your story deserves to be treated as the sacred offering it is.

“You're going to make terrible mistakes if you set out to be a writer,” Lamott said. “There will be people who will try to get you to write things differently than what's on your heart to write. Look for people who say ‘whatever you hand us to read is so brave. I'm so proud of you’—people who know you're handing over your spirit and your soul and this effort you made to capture a time, a place, or feeling or memory.” 

Being a beginner is uncomfortable. One of the best ways to embrace being a beginner is to find supportive people who will encourage you to keep going. If you’re going to embark on the journey of writing about your life, be sure you surround yourself with people who will honor your story; a community that understands the courage it takes to write and share your work with others. 

Ready to get started on your memoir? Download my free guide, “7 Tips to Get Started Writing Your Life Story.


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