Anne Lamott Is Right
September 2, 2016 § 78 Comments
By Ellen Shriner
Whenever I tell people I’m a writer, they always ask, “Are you published?” For years, being published was my primary writing goal. So when I first saw Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird, my reaction was, “Yeah, right”—
I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.
At that point, I was in my 40’s and had decided to split my time between my career—writing marketing communications—and my passion—writing essays and memoir. I was determined to get serious and break through. Lamott’s words sounded inspirational, but I wanted to be published. Anything less and I was a wannabe.
A decade later, I rediscovered her comments and wished I believed them. Then my infrequent publications would feel OK. I was in my 50’s and had been steadily working at the craft of writing: taking classes, participating in a writers’ group, submitting pieces, and revising my memoir. BIG publication (i.e., a book) was elusive but still seemed possible. Despite my skepticism, something about her perspective compelled me, so I filed it away.
Like most writers, I crave the cosmic acknowledgement being published brings. Publication means an editor or publisher considers my writing worthy. But at 62, I have to admit cosmic acknowledgement has been sporadic: a dozen of my pieces have been published in anthologies and literary magazines. And yet, I’m still writing.
I have begun to see the wisdom in what Lamott says. After devoting ten years to writing and revising my book-length memoir and several more years to seeking publication, I’ve accepted that it’s unlikely to be published. Although I was sad to let go of that dream, it was also a relief. The single-minded pursuit of that book meant I didn’t have much time for new topics or styles of writing.
Today, I write essays and I blog. Initially, WordSisters was meant to build my platform so I’d be more attractive to publishers. After a few months, I discovered I liked the discipline of blogging. It’s a shared blog, so I have to come up with something every other week. And I do. When it’s my turn, I complete a short piece and put it out there. Now and then, a blog falls short, but many of them are pretty good.
Some weeks I feel like I’m whispering into the void. Half a dozen people like the blog on Facebook and even fewer comment on it. That’s disappointing, but I try not to dwell on it. Many people deal with an onslaught of written words every day. It’s inevitable mine will get lost now and then.
After I focused on writing essays and blogs, I sensed the magic of Lamott’s advice. At first, tiny glimmers of peacefulness replaced my anxious striving. Just sitting down to write is a win. Of course, I get discouraged and feel loser-ish sometimes. But more often, I feel flashes of contentment and simple joy in the work. I’m holding up my part of the writing bargain, regardless of what editors do with it.
These days, I’m writing whether or not anybody publishes it. Because I want to. When drafting, I love being caught up in the rush of ideas and words. When revising, I enjoy the challenge of coaxing meaning and clarity from my jumble of thoughts.
Anne Lamott was right: writing is its own reward.
Ellen Shriner is one of the founders and contributors to WordSisters, a shared blog (wordsisters.wordpress.com). Her short memoirs have been published in several anthologies (The Heart of All That Is: Reflections on Home, Mourning Sickness, and It’s About Time). Her personal essays have appeared in Wisconsin Review, Mothers Always Write, BrainChild, Midwest Home, Philosophical Mother, Minnesota Parent, and Messages from the Heart. She has written a book-length memoir about coming of age in the workplace during the late 1970s. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, and she has two grown sons.