Bird by Bird
Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.
Your day’s work might turn out to have been a mess. So what? Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” So go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes. Use up lots of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here—and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.
And it feels so great finally to dive into the water; maybe you splash around and flail for a while, but at least you’re in. Then you start doing whatever stroke you can remember how to do, and you get this scared feeling inside you—of how hard it is and how far there is to go—but still you’re in, and you’re afloat, and you’re moving.
The garden is one of the two great metaphors for humanity. The other, of course, is the river. Metaphors are a great language tool, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known.
There’s an image I’ve heard people in recovery use—that getting all of one’s addictions under control is a little like putting an octopus to bed.
Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.
You can’t fill up when you’re holding your breath. And writing is about filling up, filling up when you are empty, letting images and ideas and smells run down like water—just as writing is also about dealing with the emptiness. The emptiness destroys enough writers without the help of some friend or spouse.
Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe.
Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck. You’ll sit there going, “Are you done in there yet, are you done in there yet?” But it is trying to tell you nicely, “Shut up and go away.”
“The world can’t give that serenity,” he said. “The world can’t give us peace. We can only find it in our hearts.” “I hate that,” I said. “I know. But the good news is that by the same token, the world can’t take it away.”
You simply keep putting down one damn word after the other, as you hear them, as they come to you. You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clear the dinner dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.
Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.