Making Candy on the Deck of the Titanic

Bird by Bird coverLast week I re-read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. The last time I’d read it was ten years ago, when I was struggling to write and submit literary short stories and getting loads of enthusiastic rejection letters. It wasn’t an era I look back on with great fondness, but I remember that book being one of the lights of my writing life. So I was planning on the experience of re-reading it being a lot like coming home.

In many ways, it was.

Anne Lamott still writes better than anyone I know about what it feels like to envy other writers, even writers we love and admire. About the voices—the radio station KFKD—that drown out our creativity. About the power of the subconscious— “the cellar where the little boy sits who creates the characters, and … hands them up to you through the cellar door. He might as well be cutting out paper dolls. He’s peaceful; he’s just playing.”

She writes brilliantly about how publication doesn’t make you happier, quoting the coach in the movie Cool Runnings, which follows the first Jamaican bobsled team: “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.”

And her section on giving, on giving yourself completely to every project you set before you, is completely true and also makes me cry every time, because of the story she tells to illustrate what true giving looks like. If you haven’t read it or don’t remember it, now is a good time for a refresher.

I also loves the way she writes about the joy writing brings to lives:

Maybe what you’ve written will help others, will be a small part of the solution. You don’t even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like it own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there, shining.


It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

But I was struck this time by the ways in which Bird by Bird is aimed at literary writers, struck by Lamott’s scorn for what she calls “formula fiction.” “When you get serious,” Lamott writes, “you will be dealing with the one thing you’ve been avoiding all along—your wounds. This is very painful. It stops a lot of people early on who didn’t get into this for the pain. They got into it for the money and fame. So they either quit, or they resort to a type of writing that is sort of like candy making.”

I didn’t get into it for the pain. And I don’t think you have to get into it for the pain in order to shine like a lighthouse. Granted, writing is not easy work. It’s some of the hardest work there is. And publishing—well, publishing, as Lamott so very wisely notes, may make you crazy in larger proportion than it makes you happy. So there are moments when it hurts, when it’s hard, when it makes no sense, when it feels—as my mom’s good friend said to her about her writing career—“like balloon rides and hammer blows.”

But I don’t think that if you’re not into pain that means you have to resort to a type of writing that is “sort of like candy making.” Or maybe another way to put this is that I don’t believe that making candy for people is lesser than mining and exposing the deepest crevasses of our pain.

Lamott’s words about singing as the storm rages, how it can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship, reminded me of an iconic image—the musicians playing on the deck of the Titanic. They played ragtime tunes, and at the end, possibly “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and “Autumn,”—witness accounts vary. Ragtime and hymns. Music that was probably scorned by academics and the intellectual elite of that era as, respectively, entertainment or opiate. Not art. But those people on the Titanic’s deck were not looking to be educated or edified or improved. They were looking to be distracted, to be uplifted, to be reminded that there is light wherever you shine it, at the darkest moments.

I can’t help thinking that even if the Titanic is sinking, which it almost assuredly is, always, today, somewhere, I would like to be one of the musicians who played on the deck. That seems like good, solid work, not work to be ashamed of, not the sort of thing that ought to be equated with quitting. Entertainment, the bringing of joy into lives—these are not pursuits that should be underestimated. I would like to tell the truth, be a lighthouse, and make candy. And so I shall, with no shame, bird by bird.

About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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15 Responses to Making Candy on the Deck of the Titanic

  1. I’m new to writing fiction and I haven’t yet written more than a handful of scenes and character sketches. (I’ve always thought of myself as a poet and blurber and steered well clear of fiction as plot and story confused me.) However, I totally understand the pain thing Lamott talks about, and I don’t know that any of it has to do with literary-ness, at least not for me.

    There is some processing of pain in every kind writing I do (even handouts and the syllabus). Writing is a very physical act, as I live in a physical body very much in pain very much of the time. This pain body is a lens through which I experience the world and the word. This pain lens is also emotional and spiritual. I find that as I’m thinking about my characters or a poem or any handful of words, I have to process their experience through my own, and my own experience is about negotiating pain (and shame and a bunch of other crap).

    Maybe one of my characters is a young woman who has a healthy appetite for sex and no shame about it. As the midwife of this character, I have to process her through my own early experiences with sex and how NOT healthy they were. That process work, even though it’s not doing therapy or using the writing as therapy, is largely about using my own pain as a lens for understanding some other person’s experience. The thing that allows me to write this character and have her be original is that she is filtered through me, and my sieves are wires hatched in pain.

    As someone who has spent a lot of time in school reading depressing, literary shit, and who reads reviews about books that sound exhausting and void of compassion, and not at all resembling the kinds of things I want to read and teach, but rather things that are very much “literary” instead: I say we need more candy.

    And, lastly, this quote is so perfect. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is so, so true. “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.” (Cool Runnings Coach). For so many of us achievers, we only know one way to be enough.

  2. BTW, I could not love your tag better. It’s so perfect:

    Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better.

  3. Ruthie Knox says:

    First of all, I have to wonder if Lamott has ever made candy. Because there is often pain involved.

    Secondly, I will say that I really enjoy Bird by Bird, as well as a lot of Lamott’s other work, and I think she’s lovely for writing with great honesty about all the things we’re encouraged to be quiet about. And I’m thinking particularly here about her nonfiction, because her fiction has never clicked for me.

    But the main thing I want to say is that I don’t think it’s possible to write GOOD fiction without some interest in digging around in the guts of one’s life, and that pain is there by necessity. That is, “Dealing with … your wounds” — doesn’t that just mean “Writing with authenticity about all the ideas and experiences that dig into you deepest as a person”? Which is what most of us do — we tend to write what we’re drawn to, what we struggle with, what we need to work through. I deal with my wounds in everything I write. I wouldn’t agree that I write books that are *about* pain, but pain is in there, too. Without some pain, romance would be dull as dishwater.

    I also doubt–although I could be wrong–that there are people out there writing fiction without actually *trying* to be good. I mean, I suppose there probably are. I feel sorry for them, whoever they are.

    So while I take your point, Serena, and think it is an excellent one, I also think Anne has set up a straw man here, and like most straw men, all it takes is a little shove to knock it down.


    • I was kind of thinking the same thing…I LOVE her non-fiction, but her fiction doesn’t make sense to me…
      And HEY! What’s more important than LOVE? And CANDY?
      Was anyone’s favorite movie Charlie and the Vegetable Farm? What about the version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that was set in a wheat germ factory?

  4. I really love this post because I, too, have a conflicted relationship with Anne Lamott.I loved Bird by Bird, and other books like Operating Instructions. I totally agree – she helped me understand the emotional journey of becoming a writer at a time I really needed it. But, yes, her disdain for genre bothers me – along with her continuing remarks about online relationships and digital reading. I get tired of the “there is only one, true path” speeches. Thanks for an excellent post!

  5. rube says:

    What a great post! I have so many thoughts as I do usually, when reading Wonkomance (so many that I either attempt to write a whole essay, or I overload and content myself with having lots of FEELINGS and lurking fervently).

    But really, my takeaway was: Annie Lamott references (admittedly awesome) underdog sports comedy Cool Runnings and then disparages genre fiction?

  6. Amber Lin says:

    I have no excuse for not having read this book yet, even though I clearly should have done by now, so my comments are restricted to the quotes herein…

    I got into writing “for the pain,” which probably comes as a surprise to no one who’s read my books. They are basically 99% pain, 1% happy ending. So I was mentally nodding along when she was talking about that, despite the sticky word “formula.”

    That’s one reason why I’ve had such a flustery relationship with my yet-to-be-published, title-will-probably-change book Chance of Rain, because it’s a book that didn’t come from pain and I really don’t know what to make of that. But I also didn’t write it for the money or the fame, which I suspect may be less than my other books but we’ll see.

    I wrote it because…. it was fun. Characters who are mostly nice! Sex in a barn! What’s not to love! So, to be honest, I’m not completely, 100% opposed to the candy making analogy. It IS like candy. That doesn’t mean making it is easy. I’ve never made candy but I suspect it’s hard work just like making any other sort of food products.

    However, I wonder if she wasn’t talking about something else. There are some general writing forums on which you’ll find people who want to be authors but who don’t like to write. It is…. rather… confusing, but true nonetheless. And when I’ve had occasion to read their work, there’s no heart. No joy and no pain. So maybe that’s what she meant by the candy making analogy, this no-substance, will-rot-your-teeth stuff. As with the gold medal, even if they sell a book, it’s not going to give them a love of writing. And IMO, love of writing is the ONLY good reason to deal with the insanity of publishing.

    I think the crux of the issue is the word “formula,” because even if she did mean “fun stuff” or “no heart,” that’s not really the same thing. So what does it mean? Is she arguing against a three act structure? Is she arguing against the happy ending of the romance genre? I don’t know, but I don’t see how those things are cross purposes with writing from pain.

    • The reality is that story is structure. We recognize something as story b/c we intuit the structure. Formula implies a more overt, more rote structure, but it’s essentially the same thing. Plot itself is formula. It’s the nature of the business.

  7. Sarah Wynde says:

    Loved this post. Love it, love it, love it.

    I think there’s a school of thought that says the purpose of writing is to be Art. Capital A required. It must be beautiful and it must touch your soul deeply, somehow shape your understanding of the human experience. It must be painful, because only pain is real.

    But I read for escape, absolutely as much–no, okay, way more–than I do for art. I read for pleasure, not pain, and I’d rather laugh than cry. But laughter is just as essential an ingredient of the human condition as pain is! Life isn’t only suffering and thinking that writing is only, or should be only about your wounds ignores the fact that we are not only our wounds. Sure, they’re part of us–but our health and our laughter and our joy and our love–those are part of us, too. Writing that glorifies the first while ignoring the latter is just as much half-writing as writing that ignores the wounds entirely.

    You guys are really posting wonderful stuff this week. Thank you!

  8. Emma says:

    I first read Bird by Bird early in grad school, long before I’d started writing fiction. It was an important book for me because more than anything else I’d ever read, it made me think of myself as a writer and, moreover, taught me good habits to aspire to in order to make the writing happen. I love her image of writing “going feral” when you don’t attend to it daily. And I really needed the permission to write bad first drafts — and oh do I ever!

    But Bird by Bird, like almost all everything written about craft, is a “take what you need and leave the rest” text. She’s invested in writing Art, and that’s fine. At the moment I’m not. If I am someday, I hope that I never convince myself that that’s the only way to write books that make people feel or the only way to write, full stop. I also get the sense from her Tweets that her politics (or more specifically her investment in traditional hierarchies of literary value) may have changed somewhat. I wonder if her attitude toward genre fiction has changed of late.

  9. I think of books – all books – like that music on the deck of the Titanic as it sank into the ocean. It’s not just comfort and distraction. It’s company. It’s a voice in the dark, a hand to hold in mine on the days when life seems just so hard. I crack open a book and the author and I share a connection and I remember how wonderful the world really is.

  10. Jessi Gage says:

    I love this post, Serena. I read to be entertained and I write to entertain myself and others. I admire people who write literary fiction. But I do not have the attention span these days to read it. I’ll take formulaic, predictable, entertaining romance candy over something that stirs unpredictable emotions in my already chaotic life. I’m sure reading nothing but romance (and the occasional craft book) is a phase, but it’s an AWESOME phase, and I love it, and I SO appreciate the wonderful talented authors who give me the candy I crave.

  11. Kay says:

    (Lamott’s nonfiction is pretty great; she has a great voice, which may explain the wry perspective on genre fiction?) However, I think that romance fiction, wonky or not, by definition, is comedic. And comedy don’t get the respect that tragedy has. This is compounded by the fact that literature in English, since the Great War, has been in an ironic mode. So, there’s romance fiction positing good stuff and telling it in a straight mood … the opposite of the tragic irony that defines so much of 20th & 21st century literary fiction: forget alpha heroes and strong heroines, we’re talking anti-heroes and etoliated Mrs. Dalloways. Romance fiction has a hundred years of venerated literary tradition stacked against it. Take a line from Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for example: “Let us go then you and I when the evening is spread out against the sky … like a patient etherized upon the table.” Note it’s a “love song” screaming irony here; note the undermining of what starts out easily as quite a womantic opening. Does “They all lived happily ever after,” (which is, BTW, the closing line of Crusie’s BET ME, not a cliché) stand a chance? In the hearts of many romance readers, you bet it does. Does romance fiction have to jump up and down and demand respect like a petulant child no one takes seriously? Did Austen, or the Brontës? Nope, they quietly went on writing what that traitoress George Eliot called “silly novels by lady novelists.” Yet, she also identified in the same article named above the three elements that often make great romance fiction the delight that it is, “genuine observation, humour, and passion.” (If you’d like to read this essay, it’s published by Penguin in the Great Ideas series.)

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