Book by Book

I know that I’m good at writing, but I also know that being good at writing doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve always got something worth writing about. But Anne Lamott says writing is like playing tennis, meaning that sometimes you just go do it and don’t worry about doing it well but still do it because it feels good and also you’re Anne Lamott and grew up in Marin, CA surrounded by insanely liberal, insanely wealthy, insanely creative insane people in the sixties.

Because who else plays tennis and enjoys it?

(For the record, I really respect Anne Lamott and enjoy her work. But she’s kind of a self-righteous asshole.)

Speaking of assholes, Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse-Five that “what we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time,” and I’ve gone searching for those moments to marvel at countless times throughout my life when I’m feeling less than marvelous myself. As is the case about half the time, I’ve lately been unmarvelable, so I’ve been shoving my face into the pages of books. Again.

One of the books to which I’ve been turning this week is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which is a somewhat biographical but mostly instructive (and, like I said, self-righteous – writeous?) book about how to be a good writer. Lamott is a good writer, so it makes sense that she’d write the book, and it’s a joy to read. At least, the preface is. And the first few pages of chapter 1.

In the introduction to her own book, Lamott does actually compare writing to the practice of a sport or instrument. I think she’s absolutely right, but the context of her correctness is broader than I think she may have intended. Yes, writing is something that needs to be practiced with the ease and consistency of a sport or instrument, but learning tennis (or piano, or algebra, or… writing!) also requires a handful of specific privileges: time, equipment, and access (which usually requires some combination of proximity and money).

If I wanted to start playing tennis – literal tennis, not Lamott-metaphor-writing-tennis – I’d have to buy a racket, find a court, and then either hope to figure it out on my own or hire someone to teach me. Or ask YouTube, I guess, but you get the point. Now, applying that same line of requirements to the tennis-writing-metaphor, if I don’t have the money, the time, or the access, then I’m not going to be able to do any writing.

It doesn’t matter that I don’t have the access to tennis equipment, because tennis is not an important part of life. Writing is, and this is because “authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned about reality, does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication,” which is why Paulo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed has also been open in my lap lately (and pissing me off far less than Lamott’s sarcastic pretense). Freire argues in that same book that the entire perception of teacher-student discourse is, to use one of Freire’s own buzzwords, “problematic.”

It is, though. Problematic I mean. And “it” is the intentional and implied truth of Lamott’s tennis metaphor: that the skill of writing must be cultivated in order for it to thrive, but that access to prosperous environment isn’t equal. I know that reading is the reason I’m intellectually capable, and I also know that my writing often parallels the prowess of a gawky nine-year-old holding a racket for the first time (like that time I wrote about Bernie’s exit from the primary). Most importantly, I know that everyone deserves to learn how to communicate their experiences with authenticity and clarity, but that globally, most people are stifled, silenced, or oppressed in some degree or another.

When we talk in terms of metaphors we have to be cautious about the context metaphors carry, like how “ethnic cleansing” is not, in fact, a synonym for “genocide,” (as Donaldo Macedo points out in his introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed) because the former carries the connotations of a nice, refreshing mouthwash while the latter reminds us of the Holocaust.

Just something to consider, or not – this is just tennis practice.

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