Life gets overwhelming. Always so much to get done, commitments to fulfill, work to get done, chores to do, errands to run, children to raise, goals to reach…. Stories to write. In Anne Lamott’s bestseller “Bird by Bird”, she tells this story that relates to all of our lives, whether we are writers or not: “thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobolized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
I love that story and often think of it when a task that I know I must perform, one that I dread doing, looks too overwhelming to accomplish. Sometimes it could be cleaning my house before company is scheduled to come over, or perhaps a task like the project that I took on last spring: painting every single room in my house. Now that was a huge job since I had tons of “clutter: oversized furniture, book shelves loaded with books and photo albums, cherished collectibles, and so much more to move first. Thinking of going through every room, moving every single item, stripping outdated wallpaper left there by the former homeowners, and painting walls that stretched higher than a normal ladder could reach was actually making me feel ill. But I had been putting it off for too long and I was deteremined to finally get it done.
This is how it sometimes feels when a writer sets out to write the book of his dreams. As we open up our word document program on the laptop -or Ipad in my case, we stare at the blank page and wait for the words to just spill out onto the paper. But it doesn’t happen that way and it becomes just like the house that needs to be painted- too overwhelming to ever accomplish in this lifetime. As much as we long to write, we NEED to write, we feel a little like Anne Lamott’s 10 year old brother and just want to give up the idea and cry.
To write one word at a time, word by word, the story will eventually get written. In one of my writing groups, a few of the writers have written this way- taken one scene that appealed to them and just wrote that one chapter without knowing where it would fall in the book. Instead of agonizing over how to get from chapter one to chapter two, they write out scenes as they unfold in their minds, chapter by chapter. One of these writers, who is very talented and is ready to pitch his story to an agent as I write this, did just that. He wrote one scene at a time, one chapter at a time and later when he had a bunch of chapters written, he laid them all out and found a way to string them all together like beads on a string into his finished story. And it is a great story at that!
Instead of worrying about the entire stretch of road from start to finish, dreading each painful step we have to take along the way before we have even begun, we must-instead- focus on only the individual step as we take it. Put the rest of the road out of our minds and just keep going one step at a time and eventually, as long as we keep moving forward and refuse to give up, we WILL reach the finish line.
So next time you are overwhelmed with your task, whether it be writing a novel, or painting a house, remember to take a deep breath and write one word at a time, word by word. Paint one room at a time- or as Anne Lamott’s father told her brother all those years ago- “just take it bird by bird” and eventually you will find yourself admiring the bright colors that have transformed your entire home and you will find that you can’t recall why you had ever hesitated to begin with.