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Anne Lamott is the author of one of my favorite books on writing – Bird By Bird. The title itself is one of the first lessons Anne gives us, in which she recalls having to write a long report about birds for school. She was daunted by the size of the project and finally in frustration asked her dad, “How am I ever going to write this?!?” And her wise father answered, “Bird by bird, Anne. Bird by bird.”

And so it goes with all of our creative projects, be it writing, art, or film.

Creative projects are daunting. In fact, the more we care about a project, the scarier it is, the larger it begins to loom over the measly 24 available hours in our day. Setting out, we begin to see all the wonderful angles we might explore, all those interesting byroads, and the creative mind, it runs down the road ahead of us, sees other wonderful roads which start to fork away, oh wow, they go in all directions, they multiply, they go fractal, kaleidoscopic and … we freeze. We tighten up and pull back.

This is when resistance to writing usually kicks in. Happens to me all the time. In fact, the way I procrastinate is to “do research.” Well, gathering material and backstory may, in fact, be an essential part of the problem-solving process, but I use it as a crutch or, rather, a hidey-hole.

“I can’t possibly begin to write this! Don’t you see how MUCH there is I don’t know?”

Recognizing that we are indeed resisting work is the first step. So we take a deep adult breath and tell ourselves, “It’s time to start, dear.”

Start … okay. Fine, start … but how? This big-ass project? It’s still here, spilled all over my desktop, its file folders obliterating the once serene screen-saver picture of the lake, the lake I’m never going to sit next to because of this damn project.  Fine! I’ll start! But where? Where do I start?

And again, Ms. Lamott comes to our rescue with another piece of calm and loving advice.

“Start from where you are.”

Wow.

When you think about it, how can we start anywhere else? We have to start from here. And yet most of us want to somehow maaaaybe just think our way down the road a piece, not far, you know maybe start mapping out the journey, just sorta get a grip on this dang thing, maybe also get the 30,000-foot view of all the different roads and, dammit, LET’S SOLVE THE WHOLE STINKIN’ THING RIGHT NOW! And again, our mental wagon train grinds to a halt before we even start west.

“Start from where you are.”

So, this is the piece of advice I have most loved. I remember using it recently while writing a book. A book seems pretty daunting, no? Well, it was for me. There it sat in my computer, non-existent, completely unwritten, with different chapters all screaming for immediate attention.

The thing is, there was one scene I’d recently been thinking about. I couldn’t wait to write this particular scene but the problem was this scene was from smack dab in the middle of the story. I can’t start there. Can I?

And I did.  I started exactly there. This scene, from waaaaay in the middle of the story, was the part I was most excited about writing, which made it exactly the right place for me to pick up the big project. I could worry about the opening chapters later. I could worry about the end later. But simply by picking up this one part that interested me, I was able to keep at it, to stay bent over my keyboard for the longest time; and enjoy doing it.

Thanks, Anne. And now I pass it on to you guys. See that part of your big project that’s the most interesting piece? Start there.

25 Responses to “One of the best pieces of creative advice I was ever given.”

  1. @collentine says:

    It’s indeed the best tip for getting creative work done. Don’t think too much, just start and bit by bit it will get done. Or as they say here in Mexico: “poco a poco”

  2. Lyle Shemer says:

    Thanks for publishing this, Luke. Your sage advice never ceases to make me take a deep breath, sit back, and reassess my current frustrations.

  3. The simplest advice is often the hardest to comprehend in the moment. But any creative worth their salt knows “simple is hard” – that’s a core truth. I recall as I’ve grown into this industry how “daunting” almost everything feels, especially at the beginning. Every tool that comes out, every amazing campaign done by a competitor, every tactic a struggle and then you look back and it’s done. Strange how that happens :) Thanks, I will cherish this.

  4. Joan McCain says:

    I read the book “Bird by Bird” and while it didn’t help me understand how to write a book (I am still daunted, but hopeful), the explanation of the title was great advice I got out of reading it. I have given that “we’re gonna take it bird by bird” advice to others who faced a big project. Luke, you putting it in context of a creative project, and the “start from where you are” really resonated. It simplified an already simple message, making it more relevant. Thank you.

  5. Liz Taylor says:

    Ah, a friend of mine gave me this book several years ago and I’m embarrassed to say it’s still on the shelf. Will pull it down tonight. Thanks for the inspiration and for the reminder. Needed it today. :)

  6. Dat Le says:

    This reminds me of Will Smith’s advice “lay one brick at a time” ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSEV6O5JoPI&feature=player_detailpage#t=182s ). Building a portfolio seems daunting (and it kinda is), but it’s really all about just finishing campaign after campaign until you have something that resembles a finished product.

  7. Great advice, Luke. I’ll relay a favorite piece of advice given me by Danny Simon (Neil’s older brother) who wrote on “Your Show of Shows” way back when. Danny was giving a course in comedy writing and he said this pearl: “The worst writing written is better than the best writing never written.”

    Don’t think about writing– write, write, write, and write some more, dammit!

    Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your new book, and may it sell like crazy.

  8. Brett Stiles says:

    Hey Luke, congrats on your book. Great advice, I’m going to use tomorrow.

  9. Tina Chadwick says:

    Luke,

    Nice to hear your digital voice. Best to you and all you continually do for us ad kids.

  10. veynz nayr says:

    I haven’t read Bird By Bird, but your article makes me want to. Excellent advice there, Luke. “Start from where you are” seems so obvious now. That piece of advice I’ll surely use whenever I have to write something I know I have to write. Like, say, a long copy ad or a TVC script as a part of my job But I wish to write a book as well and I don’t know what to write about. How did you hit upon “What to write”, Luke?

  11. gina says:

    A good friend gave me “Bird by Bird” when I landed my first copywriting job and I absolutely cherish the book. So much so, that when I teach aspiring creatives, one of their first writing assignments is “what was your school lunch?”

    Thank you for the reminder of what we do, really starts word by word, or bird by bird.

  12. Amaar Verma says:

    Wow… That was a great post Luke. Thanks for the inspiration, I really felt that.

  13. Mohan Lal says:

    This article has inspired me to start writing NOW.
    Thank you Luke.
    As usual, your words are simple and your thoughts, profound.

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