One of my favorite books on writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. This was one of the first books about writing that I ever read, probably in my early teens, and it was only when I re-read it in the last year or so that I realized how much the advice in this book has shaped not only my writing but also how I approach life.
Lamott is not just a writer but also teaches writing professionally, and much of her advice can applied to situations far beyond the scope of putting words on paper. Her discussions about combating perfectionism, allowing yourself to write terrible first drafts, is surprisingly applicable to the rest of life as well. When we feel like the whole world is laid out before us (we can live anywhere, do anything, etc.), it can be paralyzing as we try to make the best decisions; to get the best deals, to choose the best career, to find the best partner. But one of the things you learn as a writer (if you actually keep writing), is that the most important thing is to just act. You put words on the page. You make a decision and you move on to the next one. And if it’s not as wonderful as you hoped it might be, that’s fine, because at least now you have something to work on and improve. You can’t edit a blank page, and neither can you work with a stalled life. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be something.
My particular temperament means I have a tendency to worry a lot. About everything. Rational or not. Within my control or not. My over-active imagination likes to play out every possible scenario for a situation unless I have some hard data to suggest how things are likely to progress. The last few months have not been easy, with so many new and unknown situations unfolding in the world and in my own life. The isolation has actually been helpful at times, because it has limited the amount of stimulation and given me more time to process everything. But it has also limited the amount of input that I might get from other people, which means that I can get stuck in my own imaginary scenarios and just spiral downwards. But it’s been during these times that I have adopted the title of Lamott’s book as a personal mantra. Bird by bird. One thing at a time.
As Lamott explains it:
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.’
I understand that feeling of being immobilized and overwhelmed all too well.
Navigating new phases of life can be daunting without a road map; and we live in a time when the world seems to be constantly changing and so the old road maps don’t always seem applicable anymore. Talk to your grandparents and see if they have the same understanding as you do about how to progress through a career or a relationship or raising children. Some of the changes in how we live our lives are good, but some changes just feel like we have been thrown into the woods with no instructions on how to take care of ourselves.
So what do you do? You focus on the next immediate need. You take it one task at a time. But you do something. It doesn’t have to be the most perfect move imaginable, but you do have to make a move. If it’s the wrong move, then you adjust, fix it if you can, and try to do better next time. Sometimes that move is as simple cleaning up the house, or reaching out to a friend, or making some concrete plans that you have been putting off.
I often remind myself these days that the future comes at its own pace, one way or another. I can’t slow it down or speed it up. I can’t avoid it altogether. The deadlines come due, and all I can do in this moment is focus on the next bird.
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