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Your own emotional acre
Learning from Anne Lamott's 'Bird by Bird'
Like you, probably, I love getting engrossed in books with big ambitions. On my nightstand right now are a biography of Abraham Lincoln, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow and a door-stopper on the history of Christianity — ones in which the writer really does try to wrap their arms around a big, huge topic and wrestle it to the ground, in a few hundred (or thousand!) pages.
But in between these, I like to catch my breath. With briefer, shorter books on smaller, lighter subjects, ones that take a few days to read instead of a few weeks. One that feel like walking a ridge between mountains, that let me climb down from one peak and relax for a bit before starting the next.
That’s what led me recently to novelist Anne Lamott’s beloved Bird by Bird, a nearly thirty-year-old book on writing I’d heard about countless times over the years and always thought I’d eventually get to, but never seemed to. Until lately, when no matter what I’ve been reading, I kept stumbling across references to it; they had to be a sign, right?
Even though I’m only about a third of the way through, Lamott’s writing is knocking me out of my chair. Reading it in bed at night, I poke my wife in the arm every few minutes to share something from it with her.
The chapters are short — just a few pages each, mostly — and cover an aspect of writing fiction like plot, character and dialogue; the one on “shitty first drafts” captures perfectly what it’s like to stare at the blank page, before you’ve written anything, and try to get something down.
It’s the one on character, in which she writes about how to come up with believable, realistic people to populate your stories, that really caught my eye, especially this paragraph:
“One image that helps me get to know the people in my fiction is something a friend once told me. She said that every single one of us at birth is given an emotional acre all our own. You get one, your awful Uncle Phil gets one, I get one, Tricia Nixon gets one, everyone gets one. And as long as you don’t hurt anyone, you really get to do with your acre as you please. You can plant fruit trees or flowers or alphabetized rows of vegetables, or nothing at all. If you want your acre to look like a giant garage sale, or an auto-wrecking yard, that’s what you get to do with it. There’s a fence around your acre, though, with a gate, and if people keep coming onto your land and sliming it or trying to get you to do what they think is right, you get to ask them to leave. And they have to go, because this is your acre.”
Before I picked up Lamott’s book, I’m not sure I’d ever come across that idea in my life. I mean, I know we all feel that internally, eventually. But I’d never seen or heard it articulated quite like that — that you have an emotional and mental space all your own, that’s yours to care for, a garden you can tend as you like.
Last week, Anne Helen Petersen wrote in her fantastic newsletterabout the challenge of being by yourself, and doing things by yourself, in a world that seems to discourage it. She describes taking herself on a recent solo skiing trip, the first time she'd done so in twenty years, and how she had to persuade herself it was okay to go.
The task of getting to know yourself is one that’s easy for all of us to put to the side, she realizes; it’s not easy to be intentional about creating your own life — and taking time to be alone, to be still with ourselves, allows us the space to find out whether we are, or if we’re more like a cork bobbing along on the water:
“What matters, I think, is this continual work of constructing a life that ultimately feels chosen. That doesn’t necessarily mean controlled; there is so much in life we can’t schedule, change, manage, or even anticipate, all manner of disappointments and disasters and swift left turns. But we can choose how we navigate those obstacles and valleys, how we move towards and through and away from others, how we cultivate precious corners for ourselves and also feasts of connection and intimacy.
I don’t mean to make the process seem easy: it’s not. It takes real work: honesty (with oneself, with others) plus tolerance for periodic discomfort and a whole lot of patience. It takes work to become friends with others, but it also takes just as much work to become friends with yourself. But I have also seen the alternative, and I know you have as well: a sour life, structured by resentment and regret.”
Read the whole thing here — every word is worth thinking about, trust me.
I’ll stop here because I set myself a goal tonight of finishing in less than a thousand words (!), but I’d love to know: how do you carve out space and time for yourself in the way Petersen describes, to allow you to tend “your own emotional acre”?
As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running/life is going!