Hey, Lighten Up Francis

Copywork – copying down what others have written to develop writing skills, an age old method of learning.
I once heard an NPR interview with a writer (embarrassed to say I can’t remember his name) who practiced copywork everyday for a year. I’ve done it some and can feel my brain shifting in a good way.
I’ll share my copywork for today from Anne Lamott’s, Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life. This passage I think has something for everyone in it.

“So after I’ve completely exhausted myself thinking about the people I most resent in the world, and my more arresting financial problems, and, of course, the orthodontia, I remember to pick up the one-inch picture frame and to figure out a one-inch piece of my story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange. I also remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

     I tell this story again because it usually makes a dent in the tremendous sense of being overwhelmed that my students experience. Sometimes it actually gives them hope, and hope, as Chesterton said, is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate. Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously. So here is another story I tell often.

     In the Bill Murray movies Stripes, in which he joins the army, there is a scene that takes place the first night of boot camp, where Murray’s platoon is assembled in the barracks. They are supposed to be getting to know their sergeant, played by Warren Oates, and one another. So each man takes a few moments to say a few things about who his is and where he is from. Finally it is the turn of this incredibly intense, angry guy named Francis. “My name is Francis,” he says. “No one calls me Francis­­­—anyone here calls me Francis and I’ll kill them. And another thing. I don’t like to be touched. Anyone here ever tries to touch me, I’ll kill them,” at which point Warren Oates jumps in and says, “Hey—lightened up, Francis.”

     This is not a bad line to have taped to the wall of your office. 

     Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take it bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.” Anne Lamott

Thank you Anonymous for the gift! And thanks all for reading.

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