Short assignments, after Anne Lamott

In Bird by Bird, the first strategy Anne Lamott shares is what she calls “short assignments”, which she visualizes with a tiny picture frame:

…all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is…to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car—just what can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

I find this a helpful frame when I’m struggling with research. Sometimes the problem I really care about—what I’m really curious about—feels too enormous. It overwhelms me, and I don’t see how to get a handle on it. I’ll distract myself with Displacement activity because I don’t feel like I have a path to making progress.

How applicable is this to research? Anne Lamott writes:

E. L. Doctorow 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 about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

I feel a bit conflicted about this. One the one hand, deep understanding often feels like it comes from accumulating lots of small increments. On the other hand, synthesis and reframing are often the essential moves, and they seem somewhat incompatible with the one-inch frame.

Q. Lamott’s childhood story used to illustrate short assignments?
A. Her 10 y.o. brother weeping, overwhelmed by the hugeness of a big assignment on birds due the next day, which he’d put off for months; her father says: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

This is some piece of the motivation behind Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate.

Last updated 2023-09-14.