In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells a story of her own writerly jealousy during a period when a literary friend was doing really well. It was a particularly hard period for Lamott, and the acquaintance phoned frequently, saying things like, ‘I just don’t know why God has blessed me with so much.’
As Lamott tells it (and you really need to read it in her own words – that combination of recognisable folly, crackling hilarity and moving truthfulness that is all her own) her jealousy was eating her up. So she went to her therapist, who said ‘Go ahead and feel the feelings.’ She spoke to wise writer and non-writer friends who read poems to her or made her laugh. And then she read a poem by Clive James (‘My Enemy’s Book is Remaindered’), which made her laugh with recognition, and the knowledge that she could use this feeling.
She writes, ‘I started to get my sense of humour back… and then I started to write about my envy… about how often I had longed for what other girls had.’ The envy, and the conversations, and the poems, and the fierce, terrible feelings – it is almost as though she is writing about a kind of battle.
Some days – some months – you will feel that everything is smooth and possible in your writing. And other months, or days, will seem like sludge. That’s part of the process. But it can be helpful to know, to notice, where your allies are. And what your enemies are. Getting clear on both allows you to strategise – knowing who to call when you need to buck up and also knowing when not to pick up the phone.
This is a little audit that I often do with writing groups, writing friends and my own self: Take a piece of paper and create two columns. One should be headed Allies, and the other, Enemies (if you’d rather use less militaristic language, you could write Helpers and Hindrances or something similar.)
Begin with the Enemies column.
We’re thinking just about those things that are enemies to your writing. So, for instance:
• Although your children might not be enemies in your life, their need for time and
attention might be an obstacle to your writing. Perhaps they also inspire you, so you
might want to put them on both lists.
• Your sister might not generally be an enemy, but perhaps she sends out a little
frisson of her own envy when you talk about your writing. So put her on the enemies
list. You might want to add context (‘my sister when I talk about my writing
Think of all the things that become obstacles to your writing – lack of time, lack of money, the school run, a demanding job. All of that. But also, perhaps: self-doubt, hunger, boredom, impatience with myself, television….
Be completely honest. And keep it private.
What can you do with this list? You probably can’t remove all your enemies – but being aware of them will help you neutralise the effects. Don’t talk to your sister about your writing community. Schedule in your viewing time.
And… use your allies. The Allies column will contain problem-solving clues for those days when you feel stuck in a loop.
In the Allies column, list all the resources, habits, people and techniques that might help you. You might include the neighbour who helps you out with babysitting, but you might also include tech tools, books and writers who inspire you. I passed this exercise on to some British writer friends and one of them, the brilliant novelist Louise Doughty, keeps ‘Polo Mints’ on her list of allies. The reason? She realised that she would often get up from her desk by telling herself she was hungry, when in fact she was simply having a moment of ‘grapple’ in her manuscript. The mints allow her to eat something, build in a pause, and stay at the desk.
Make your Allies column longer than your Enemies. There’s power in noticing the allies you already have, as well as considering new possibilities – the headphones that help you concentrate, the fact that a bath helps you get inspired, the walk near your house that resets you, the writing friend you can text to check in with, that quiet café that you could write in, your Immersion: Deep recordings and emails…
Write it all down. Keep your list of Allies somewhere near your writing space. When you hit a roadblock, check your Allies and ask yourself: who or what can I call on now?
He said to call any time