Earlier this week I finished Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. The author offers useful advice about the writing process, and I especially like what she has to say about paying attention and workshopping. The book has brought me to ask myself not only how I should write, but what I should be writing.

Lamott says that “there is ecstasy in paying attention…. Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty of pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that – the details, the nuance, what is.” Annie Dillard’s writing demonstrates this kind of surprise and delight. I have been reading and rereading Dillard’s nonfiction since I was 16, and if someone decided to destroy all the poems in the world, I would still find solace and joy in Annie Dillard. I appreciate the intuition that goes beyond reason, all meanings manifest in a single word. What Hopkins did with inscape in his poetry, Dillard does in her prose. I don’t know if I could ever write like Dillard, but she always reminds me how much I like writing, because I really like paying attention.

Lamott also describes the value of getting people to read your stuff and providing honest, constructive feedback. I always get nervous whenever I have asked friends and reliable readers to critique my writing, but it’s ultimately beneficial to get another perspective. (I’m actually waiting on some feedback right now.) And people’s comments often emphasize that being a good writer also means being a good reader, and I need to revise my work with that in mind.

I’ve had the opportunity to give feedback on several projects friends have been working on. I can’t help feeling that these readings are little nudges to get back on the horse. A friend asked me to look over her blog post, six solid and enjoyable pages of funny anecdotes and observations of a roadtrip. For the past three years, I’ve been looking over a friend’s phases of a book he’s working on, at least 80,000 words. And I recently read the 30-page outline for another friend’s really fun-sounding book. I can’t get over how brilliant these friends are. They do so many incredible things with words, and I always feel self-conscious in my comments on their work. I always feel humbled that they would ask me to read their writing.

Whenever Reilly and I walk by the YA section of a bookstore, Reilly tells me that we could easily write a book better than most of those on the shelves. So what about my own writing? Writers use SO MANY different sources. Do I write about my limited, but really cool travels? Do I try to fictionalize intense personal experiences? Do I draw from mythology or a specific point in a culture’s history? Do I try to show up 98% of the YA writers in the world? I haven’t been participating in NaNoWriMo, but should I do it at least once? The short and not very definitive answer to these questions is: Yes. At least it has been affirmed that:

I have a pretty good sense of how to arrange words into sentences sometimes
I can write a blog/online journal post
I can write an outline for a novel/memoir

It’s time to saddle up.