Bird by Bird…by bird

I tell people that I read Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird annually. The truth is that I’m perpetually reading it, slowly. There’s always a bookmark in it (right now there are two, for some reason) and it’s rare that it’s not in the bag of books I tote around almost everywhere I go. I read it in spurts, which allows me to appreciate different passages in different ways at different times. Today, for instance, I opened up to the chapter “False Starts.”

The chapter itself opens with mention of a story Lamott (apparently) shares earlier in the book (I mean, I’m sure she does, but it’s been a while since I read the referenced passage and I appreciate the reminder) about an artist who experiences false starts. “He keeps covering his work over with white paint each time that he discovers what it isn’t, and each time this brings him closer to discovering what it is.” The story is an apt metaphor for life, which is likely why the subtitle of Lamott’s book is “Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” but rather than meditate on the life lesson, I was taken back to a graduate poetry workshop I took with John Skoyles.

I should mention that there was no prerequisite to enroll in the workshop, otherwise I would have never been allowed to take the course. Thankfully, my tuition to Emerson College afforded me the opportunity and I took full advantage and signed up for two semesters with Professor Skoyles. Despite his patience, guidance, and feedback, I can’t say that I became a better poet that first semester. (I take all the blame, of course.) I did, however, become a more thoughtful person, which is why I was eager to spend a second semester with him.

One evening that first semester, we deviated from our typical class schedule. Professor Skoyles wheeled in a TV on a cart, very 1980s-like, and popped in a VHS tape (very, very 1980s-like). He pressed play and we watched a painter paint. Aside from seeing some clips of Bob Ross back in the (1980s) day, I had never really watched an artist create before. Professor Skoyles was obviously excited to share this with us. I assume he had viewed the video many times before, yet he still smiled while he watched and fast-forwarded through parts, eager to show us some highlights. He didn’t explain much, nor do I remember any narration or even sound accompanying the video. So we all just watched as the painter approached a large canvas and began to paint.

I think a sailboat emerged or some other kind of nautical scene, but just when I thought I could see where the artist was going, he stopped and painted over the entire canvas with white paint. (Yeah. Just like in Lamott’s anecdote!) I remember being a bit shocked. Like, why didn’t he just take out a new canvas? What was wrong with what he was doing? All that work gone?! Is this how painters paint?!?

Maybe that’s when Professor Skoyles pressed fast-forward or maybe the video cut to a little while later, but we did get to see the artist begin painting again. The weird thing was, he didn’t start that same scene again. There may have been some similar element or something, but to my eye, this was a whole other painting. And I was even more confused and intrigued.

I don’t remember how the video ended or if it didn’t and Professor Skoyles simply stopped it so we could move on, but I do remember him saying, “I just wanted to share that with you.” There was really no explanation. It was more like, “Hey. You should consider this.” And I’ve considered it a lot ever since.

I first read Bird by Bird for an undergrad course in education. And by read, I mean “read.” I skimmed much of it. For some reason, I failed to connect to the text as a 21-year-old.* I ended up latching on to the idea of the intimidating blank page and writing a paper in which I tried to simultaneously convince my instructor that I thoughtfully and carefully read the assigned book and that I was also already empathetic to my soon-to-be students. Fake it ‘til you make it, I guess? It was more of a fake it ‘til you get it situation, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

And I probably only think I get it now. Surely my next reread will provide further insight into writing, teaching, and life. I’m already looking forward to it.

*On the very off chance that Lamott is reading this, I just want to note that it wasn’t you, it was me. (This likely goes without saying, but I feel better having said it.) 


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