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I Probably Owe Anne Lamott A Lot Of Money

The cover of Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.”

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Many years ago, I read a book. Standard business literature, nothing too noteworthy. But in the back of the book was a bibliography and buried in the entries of statistics papers and other research was an entry for Bird By Bird. It was so out of place that I bought it because I was curious and now I probably end up reading it once a month or so.

Making visual art can get tough at times and there isn't a lot of good writing about the process of making art. The truth is that paintings are expensive in terms of time and materials and artists who go into their paintings with a purpose in mind -- advertising, storytelling, conveying an emotion -- generally learn to do a lot of planning and problem solving on paper first, before they ever approach a canvas. Testing ideas in a series of 2"x3" thumbnail sketches on printer paper is faster and cheaper than doing that same series in paint on 24x36 canvases. After that, there's still a lot of problem solving to be done. How do I actually draw this face? What does that building look like and how do I get its perspective to match the figures I'm putting in front of it? How much slime is too much, and how can I add more? If a blackberry bush had a face, where would it be?

“One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do-- you can either type or kill yourself.”

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

On the best days that problem solving process is triumphant and inspired but on the worst days it can devolve into a sort of white knuckle tedium as I test bad idea after bad idea, viscerally aware of a deadline I've already missed and unable to come up with answers. "How much slime is too much slime" is a fun question to think about right up until the entire painting depends on getting the answer right. My non-artist friends wish they had these sorts of problems and they're generally polite but (I suspect) secretly extremely unsympathetic.

On those days, those days when I'm drowning in a visual mess of my own making that only I can clean up, it's helpful to know that other artists suffer too, that this is a normal part of the process. But artists don't talk about that much. They talk about the necessity of thumbnail sketches, of always sending precisely three options to the Art Director to choose from. They talk about the necessity of a value structure, of how to draw the focus of the viewer, of visual hierarchy and split complementary color schemes. These are the nuts and bolts of a visual image. But they don't talk about how hard it can be to get all those bolts in the right place and tightened up enough to holding the painting together. If history is any guide, they mostly drink instead.

However, there are loads of books on the trials and tribulations of writing, written by authors whose whole business it is to turn agony into coherent sentences. It turns out that art and writing share a lot of process similarities, but writers have the ability to talk about them in a way that artists don't. Chief among those similarities is the extreme pettiness into which one can descend in a hurry when things aren't going well in the studio and everyone else is seemingly rolling in success.

“I know some very great writers [...] Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)”

-- Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird

So I bought this book and now I read it when the going gets tough. It's my security blanket. It reminds me that hard problems are not the same as impossible problems. It has some concrete problem solving strategies for writing that translate well into illustration equivalents. I bought an ebook version but if I'd chosen a physical copy, I'd probably have had to rebuy it at this point due to wear and tear.

Anne, if you're out there, let me buy you a coffee or something. You're due some extra royalty fees.

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Creating is damn hard work, no matter what the medium. Lamott has a mordant wit that enables her to tell truth about life, about parenting, sobriety, faith and much more in a way that goes straight to the core of the issue. She lets you breathe deeply with relief and recognition, and laugh at the same time. For some reason this quote of hers always resonated: “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” Relief -- check. Recognition -- check. Laugh -- check.

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