What’s the best advice on writing (amidst the many oceans of advice accessible on a phone)? Check this quote within a quote from Anne Lamott’s go-to classic, Bird by Bird:
“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
Recalling How I Stumbled Into The Best Advice On Writing
Years ago, I literally stumbled through this “best advice on writing” along the western edge of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
I was on assignment, profiling a bush pilot who — among an assortment of duties — flew loggers to and from logging camps, delivered mail to people who managed a lighthouse, and dropped off intrepid hikers taking on the “edge of the world” known as the Nootka Trail. My reporting included tagging along with the pilot as he backpacked his way through an old-growth forest to the trailhead and then along a good portion of the coastal trail. I realized early on that my cellphone was worthless.
In fact, I was more accustomed to trails described with the prefix “multi” than I was in the mud, muck, and bramble of the Nootka woods trail. In minutes, I dropped off the pace. About the time I was sure I was lost in the darkness of the forest, I stepped into a hole and twisted my knee in the same unruly fashion you would see me try to wrench a leg off a turkey I was carving. The pain was sharp enough I pictured myself needing to be dragged through the forest on a stretcher.
I was able to splint the leg with a sweatshirt I yanked out of my backpack. It felt like I had shredded the cartilage around the knee, but since the local bush pilot was earthbound for the day and well out of sight, I started trudging forward with a wild limp. An hour later, I was relieved when I exited the woods onto the coastline, but I was facing a 12-mile southward slog. Feeling beat before I even started, I felt my heart sink into the sand.
The self-pity wasn’t working any wonders for me, so I took a first step. Here’s where Lamott’s fondness for Doctorow’s “best advice on writing” quote comes in: Because the bights of the coastline blinded me from seeing anything beyond a few hundred yards, I was forced into focusing on one recess at a time. “You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
And that’s the way it worked out. When I took it one bight at a time (no pun intended), I forgot about how impossible covering 12 miles of rocky shoreline felt. I just had to get to the next corner, and then the next one, and the next one. As Lamott suggests, you don’t have to see the destination to ultimately get there. I did get there, and the beer that night tasted pretty good.
Right now, day to day, I’m doing my best to apply this three-feet-ahead-of-you concept to my writing practice. Time will tell how well it works out for me — I look forward to being able to report the results (the good, the bad, the ugly).
As I mentioned last month in my editor’s note, I’m starting to write a novel and looking for a few fellow writers who might want to share support in an accountability group. No need to savagely torque any connective tissue. We’ll keep each other company as we pin our focus on a few feet of illuminated road and see where it takes us. Up for a road trip? Send me an email.
(Also — send me an email if you have what you feel is the best advice on writing. I’m up for all opinions!)
T.J. Murphy is the editor of The Writer.