Mini-Mini #1: Bird By Bird

I’m reading ‘Bird by Bird’, a book on writing by Anne Lamott.

I love this lady. Reading the book is like reading a letter from an old friend: she’s honest and vulnerable and genuinely seems to want to help. She’s real about her flaws, her weaknesses, and her struggles; and that makes me feel better about mine.

The book is focused on creative writing, but I think it’s also great instruction for life in general. One of the main points is this: go easy on yourself, focus on one small thing at a time, and work in little chunks.

‘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’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was t the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilised 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’m learning this right now about myself: I tend to set multiple big goals, then pressure myself to get them done, and feel guilty when I end up doing nothing. Maybe I’ll have one or two great days at the start, where I work for hours and get loads done, but then the next morning when it’s almost impossible to write a sentence or play a note on the piano I’ll start feeling the weight of everything I ‘should have done by now’.

Man alive, these brains of ours are tricky. I am definitely harsher on myself than I would ever be on another person.

The last few months were the most stressful and stretching that I can remember. I had a lot of difficult work to get done, I was trying (and mostly failing) to keep my own projects going, and I was studying A-Level Maths on the side (catching up on my education, because I left school at 16, over 12 years ago now).

I had those exams back in June, and because of bad planning and a busy schedule, I ended up having to study three months worth of Maths in the space of 12 days. It absolutely smashed my brain. I’m not even kidding. I kept waking up in the middle of the night with math problems running through my head, confused and convinced that I had to solve these questions before I was allowed to sleep. One time it took me an hour of sitting still with a green tea at 3.30am before my head quieted enough for me to go back to bed.

The exams went well (I think – results in August!) but I was totally exhausted. I literally went straight from the final exam into a long and complex composing job that took two weeks and kept me awake until 3am most nights: which normally I could cope with and even enjoy, but at that point I was already exhausted.

So I got to the total end of myself. I kept crying at tiny things. I was getting angry. I don’t know if I’ve felt that tired before.

Then, the night I finished the work, I got sick. I came down with flu and some kind of sinus infection, and was ill for two weeks. I wanted to get back to it, to start writing for The Allowed again or work on new music, and I was starting to feel that familiar guilt because I wasn’t working on anything.

But every time I tried, nothing came out. I found it so hard to get motivated, and I just felt like a wreck.

I know what you’re probably thinking. ‘Of course you found it hard! You were insanely tired, sick, and had just completed a huge amount of work! Take a freaking break!’

That’s what I’d say to anyone else. But we’re always hardest on ourselves.

My girlfriend has been encouraging me to take the pressure off and just relax. And the same stuff has been coming up on podcasts too. So, this book came at a perfect time. Reading ‘Bird By Bird’ was the last bit of confirmation I needed.

I want to enjoy life. I’m self-employed, so I’m in charge of my own time, which can lead to even more guilt and self-loathing when I don’t live up to my own high line. But what’s the point of living self-employed if I can’t enjoy it?

I don’t think that our best creativity ever comes out of guilt.

One big thing from the book that I’ve put in place this week is: to just set tiny goals. Write for 30 minutes every day. That’s it. Part of my brain says: “That’s just lazy and pointless. You may as well just watch Youtube videos instead”. But that’s another sign that our brains are tricky bastards. I’ve done more writing in two hours over this whole week than I have in the last month of feeling bad about it.

Small is beautiful, and so in honour of that idea, and of my desire to become more honest, open and vulnerable, I’m going to be writing a bunch of these ‘Mini-Mini’s over the next week or two. I’ll be writing them quickly, within 30 minutes or so, without as much editing as usual, and just putting out whatever I’m thinking about at the time.

I’ll probably get back to the huge main articles at some point. But for now, this is what I need. And that has to be allowed as much as anything else.

So – I’ll be back tomorrow. See you then!


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One Comment

  1. Tim Headley
    July 28, 2016

    Well done Jon. Expressing your story in print is also therapeutic in itself, as is being open about where you were. Being self-motivated in a world of distractions is hugely difficult, and those of us in similar situations all need to be reminded about taking small steps instead of beating ourselves up over missing the big stuff.

    Good one!

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