The Posture of the Writer - Part II

Last week I asked whether or not you thought the writer’s “posture” effects his or her ability to carry out the work of writing. We looked at Madeline L’Engle’s ideas on this in WALKING ON WATER, and some of you shared your own ways of listening to the work. We all seemed to agree that time set aside is an absolute must, and that deliberately “unplugging” helps too.  

Today let's switch gears just a bit and look at Anne Lamott’s thoughts about the posture of the writer towards the world as found in the well-loved guide BIRD BY BIRD.  

The posture of the writer towards the world

Lamott says that writing is about “learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on” (97).  The goal of the writer is to “help others have [a] sense of wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small bordered world” (100).  In order to do this, we must cultivate in ourselves that sense of wonder; we must live in the world with our eyes wide open. Wonder requires reverence which is “awe, a presence in and openness to the world” (99).             

It also requires a conscious effort, doesn’t it? Most of us are just so busy or, dare I say it, self-focused that we look right over the street musician playing Bach’s “Chaconne” in the metro station. You know what I’m talking about, I hope? That day in 2007 when Joshua Bell, the violin prodigy-turned-internationally-acclaimed virtuoso played his $3.5 million Stradivari in the D.C. subway as part of a social experiment to see if people would recognize and stop to appreciate beauty?

Yup, there he is. The famous Joshua Bell.

So, as writers we must take our eyes off our own lives and notice the details in others, right? But then we must take it further. We must ask ‘why?’ Why is that man dressed like that? Why does the usually cheerful postman have bags under his eyes? Why is that child’s smile so sad, so lopsided?            

But lest we take Lamott’s definition of the writer as “a person who is standing apart” (97), as an excuse for elitism, she reminds us that to really see people as they are, “you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense” (97, italics mine).   

How can we do this? How can we get to know ourselves—the real true self that is often buried under tons of cares and responsibilities and images of who we ‘should’ be? Perhaps one very important step is what we touched on last time—to “be” as L’Engle practices, to get quiet within ourselves.  

But another tactic might be to step outside our emotions and examine our motivations in the same way we might examine character motivation for our work-in-progress. Instead of riding the irritation I feel at the slow-as-molasses driver in front of me, I could ask why I find the situation so irritating. What lies beneath the moment? Not just the fact that I’m late and the driver is in my way, but what does my irritation say about me?  

And then, might I turn the situation around? Ask instead why the driver is not paying attention? Engage my imagination? Wonder if she worried about what to make for her dinner party Saturday night? Or if perhaps she was up all night with a sick child and is drowsy at the wheel? Or if she distracted because she just lost her job?   

If I let it, wondering in this way helps me develop a deeper sense of empathy, both for myself and others. And I think it gradually aids me in the struggle to portray characters as complex and intriguing human beings. 

But there’s another side to Lamott’s ideas on the writer's stance towards the world. She points out that the writer's job involves “seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein” (97). 

Meaning in misery, goodness in anguish... this is a big deal, right? We all suffer hardships and loss, and so do those we love--our friends, our families, our children. But what about those we never see face to face, half-way across the world or shut away in homes for the mentally ill or living in fear of a tyrannical regime. And then there are the very extreme cases, the Holocaust, famine, religious persecution and martyrdom. 

How do we, as writers, find our way through the muck? How do we create hope?

Lamott says, 
To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and pass this on (107).
So if Lamott is right, and we are first and foremost to care, then we can't be self-protective. We must live in the trenches. We must face reality. We can't escape to our towers and look at the world as through a mirror (see reference to Lady of Shalott from Part I here).

But perhaps our work can be a mirror. Perhaps it can be that object which reflects, not just the shape and color of reality, but the truths underlying it. 

And perhaps the writer's posture towards the world is really, at its best, not a posture at all, but instead an action, a striding forth, a choice and a hope that we, and the things we create, just might be part of the solution.

So I've got two questions for you this week:

1.)    Which authors come to your mind when you think of books that make a difference in the face of suffering? Who, among those who write for children and young people, might serve as our models?

2.)    Anyone, be it a refrigerator repair man or a daycare worker, can interact with people and places, past and present, with compassionate awareness and write about it. But what gives a story power? What makes it work? What allows it to speak to us? Does it have to do with the execution? Is this where mastery of technique and skill make the difference?
What do you think?

Please share. And if you'd like to keep tabs on the responses from others, don't forget to click on the mail icon next to your comment. They will go straight to your mailbox.


  1. Thanks for this interesting blog, Bethany. I agree that we authors need to care about the situations we create or choose to use in our work. But we also need to care about our characters. A story with an exciting plot and a surprise ending is fun to read, but if readers don't connect with the characters, I don't think the author has written something that will pass the test of time. Execution, I think, is actually not as important as caring and content, simply because it is so tied up in readers' personal preferences.

  2. Hi, Shelia, nice to meet you!

    You raise some excellent points here. Book love is largely dependent on the reader-character connection. Gilly, from The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson is an example of a character who is, for me at least, every bit as real as a a former student or a childhood friend, and maybe more so because books, as a medium, allow me, as a reader, into a character's head in a way that is closed to me in real life. I actually don't know anyone who has been in Gilly's situation, or even anyone with her particular way of coping. But I recognize her prickliness, her deep need to be loved and yet not wanting to say so or worse, to have people see that need.

    This is actually a good book to study because Patterson's execution is so organic, so seamless, that we don't even notice "techinque." And yet, it is there in layers, as author Deb Wiles pointed out at a conference I attended last summer. Memorable entrance, effective dialogue, character-specific description of the environment that reveals the character's most deeply held beliefs, etc.

    Perhaps one test to determine whether a book is meant to endure might be 'could it have been told in any other way and be as effective?'

    Or is that even a fair question?

    Thanks for the intellectual simulation, Sheila!

  3. In answer to your first question above, yes, Katherine Paterson and her Gilly make a good example. Also several of Betsy Byars' books and Lois Lowry's and Mary O'Hara's. I'm sure many readers felt a lot of empathy for Doug in Schmidt's OKAY FOR NOW and for Conor in THE MONSTER CALLS, both published in 2011, but I don't think either book is as involving as some of the older novels such as THE YEARLING. A newer one that works for me on all levels is THE BOOK THIEF. Some reviewers disliked Death as the narrator, but I thought it was fine. If you've read OKAY FOR NOW, we can go into how I feel about the execution of that story later.

    It's interesting that you posed the question about whether a book could have been told in any other way. My most recent novel uses a back-and-forth time frame, and a few reviewers have said this distracted them. Most have mentioned that it worked very well for them. I, of course, feel it was the best way to tell the story. : - )


    1. THE BOOK THIEF is a good one. I didn't dislike Death as a narrator, but I think the book could have been just as successful without it. I haven't ready OKAY FOR NOW yet. On the list for this year, though.

      I think the saying 'time will tell' is an important test too. The longer it has been since a book has been published, the more time people have to forget about it. If the majority haven't forgotten, that's a good indictation of the book's endurance.