Sentence by Sentence, Bird by Bird: Composition Pedagogy by Anne Lamott


Today marks the exact middle of the month immortalized as the cruelest by T.S. Eliot—at least within the world(s) of Anglophone letters. While UT-Austin’s undergraduate population may disagree with everything else Eliot wrote, the ever-increasing hustle and bustle of the UWC (University Writing Center) suggests they’d likely agree with “The Waste Land’s” opening line. But why—as this is also the month when sweet showers have “bathed every veyne in swich licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour”—is April the cruelest?

Essays begin to loom menacingly during the month of April for undergraduates and graduate students alike. These are the days when final papers for all kinds of courses rear their terrible heads and roar. In the best of all possible worlds, one would be putting the finishing touches on a draft of the final essay due right before or during final exams. And if not almost finished completing that first draft, then hopefully one is in the heady thick of writing that draft. Or, at least, actively writing it. Or, at the very least, an idea exists for the essay soon to be written…

Anyone reading knows where this is going…

I’m not sure how to describe what kind of world the end of an academic semester is, but “best of all possible” wouldn’t be the epithet I’d choose. If I could poll the students pouring into the UWC, a string of expletives would be a far more likely choice. (It would be mine, too.) Aside from the challenge of managing multiple deadlines for multiple assignments, there are several unfortunate and incontrovertible facts that conspire against students this time of year.

Fact: April in Austin, when the weather’s not yet scorching but no longer cold or cool, is not a particularly appealing time to spend hours cooped up indoors in a library carrel. If you doubt me, consider all the students sprawled with books and laptops wherever there’s a field of green. Many of them, I’ve noticed, are napping because:

Fact: By this point in the semester, “a regular sleep schedule” is a non sequitur, because:

Fact: Procrastination is. Which isn’t helped by the most terrible of them all, which has on more than one occasion caused a student to look at me like I’d misled them about how fun writing is, because:    

Fact: Writing is hard.    

Since those of us who consult can neither confirm nor deny that we’re similarly subject to the facts enumerated above, how can we effectively and supportively respond when we’re sitting across from a stressed and sleep-deprived student? As counterpoint to what the thunder of an unwritten essay might say, I offer the following pieces of writing advice courtesy of Anne Lamott. They come from her fabulous Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. The entire book is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense, hilarious tour de force, but I share these particular tips with (and recommend her book to) every class I teach. I regularly bring them up during consultations as well.

     1) Shitty First Drafts

“People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desk every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.”

Though fiction is the genre of writing that Lamott specifically addresses in Bird by Bird, her tips apply to all genres. I’ve discussed the importance and necessity of writing shitty first drafts—of getting something down on paper—in all kinds of settings. It’s true that students don’t always have (or give themselves) enough time to write more than one “draft” of an assignment, but I’ve witnessed especially anxious students calm down after being told that it’s okay for a first draft to be an absolute mess. (Because, like it or not, those of us who consult fall into the category of “successful writer” in the eyes of many students who come to the UWC.) The swear word in Lamott’s choice phrase helps to take the edge off, too.

      2) Radio Station KFKD

In my experience, talking about Radio Station KFKD has proven even more popular with students than the reality of writing shitty first drafts. Though I can’t confirm this, I suspect a large part of its appeal derives from the even more profane word lurking in its abbreviation. If, as Lamott suggests, each of us has a radio antenna inside our mind capable of tuning in to radio stations good and bad, KFKD is one that all writers should avoid because it can shut the writing process down altogether. Since I also suspect she won’t mind being the one to say the really bad word, I’ll refrain by letting her describe it herself:

“I need to bring up radio station KFKD, or K-Fucked, here. It is perhaps the single greatest obstacle to listening to your broccoli [discussed elsewhere, this essentially means trusting your own creativity] for writers. Then I promise I’ll never mention it again.

“If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on. You might as well have heavy-metal music piped in through headphones while you’re trying to get your work done. You have to get things quiet in your head so you can hear your characters and let them guide your story.”

Though we could easily substitute heavy-metal for any kind of music that happens to drive us to distraction—country music would be one of mine—you can similarly substitute concepts for characters and essay for story. After talking with a student for only a few minutes, I often intuit that they are struggling with something larger than the assignment occasioning this particular visit to the UWC. In his recent post, Jamie Garner talked about this in terms of writerly self-confidence. Such confidence is hard to come by when KFKD’s creating a new definition of din in a student’s head. Whenever that music is blaring so loudly it’s audible to me sitting across from a student, I ask them if they’ve ever heard of that particular radio station. And then I proceed to tell them its story. This doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of the assignment at hand—especially when final exams are roughly three weeks away—but it almost always makes them smile.

 ~John Fry

(Unless otherwise noted, all quotations come from Lamott's Bird by Bird.)