Monday, March 07, 2016

Bird by Bird

In Bird by Bird, her 1994 writing guide, Anne Lamott approaches the craft with a near perfect blend of seriousness and humor, never speaking down to her readers, while at the same time reminding them that a healthy sense of humor about themselves is one of the most useful tools in a writer's kit.  Lamott may not be able to turn you into the writer you want to be, but she will motivate you to keep plugging away until something happens – even if that “something” turns out to be a lifetime of writing for your own expressive pleasure.

Lamott characterizes herself as a shy, strange-looking child who learned to use humor to deflect the taunts about her looks that boys made as they rode by on their bicycles.  As she puts it, "So first I got funny and then I started to write...” And it paid off, because in high school the desire of her classmates to see themselves reflected in her stories gained her the kind of popularity she otherwise would never have enjoyed.  Anne Lamott's defines her life and who she is by her writing, and she knows that there are countless others out there who feel the same way.  Bird by Bird is her gift to those others.

Bird by Bird is divided into five parts, each section geared to take the want-to-be writer another step or two toward that goal.  Part One, "Writing," focuses on structure and on techniques designed to keep you coming back to the keyboard.  She begins with the "short assignment" concept by which a writer focuses on one tiny part of the story he wants to tell rather than allowing the bigger picture to overwhelm him.  From there, Lamott covers everything from plots, to the dangers of perfectionism (which she calls "the oppressor, the enemy of the people"), to the merits of using flawed and failing characters, to plot, and finally, to a section about recognizing "when you're done."

Anne Lamott
Parts Two and Three focus more on keeping yourself in "the writing frame of mind" and knowing where to look for "help along the way."  Lamott describes the writer as someone who stands alone but decides to take a few notes in the meantime.  She points out that a writer is always writing, that no matter what is happening around him, his job is to "see people as they really are," including himself.  Lamott promises that simply giving yourself "permission" to begin writing will start you thinking like a writer, someone who sees material everywhere he turns.

The fourth part of the book addresses writer's voice, reasons to continue writing (to expose the unexposed), publication (if you are one of the very lucky ones), and the new fears that come with finally being published (such as the terror that you now have to prove that you can do it all again). Lamott calls the last part of Bird by Bird "The Last Class," and here she repeats much of what she tells her writing students in the classroom.  Not all of them will become published writers, she tells them, but they should not let that stop them because being a writer will change their lives.  Writing will "nourish the spirit," is "Intellectually quickening," and has "the potential to be as rich and enlivening as the priesthood."  Above all else, she says, "Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.  They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul."

If you want to be part of the "noble tradition" of writing, published or not, Bird by Bird may just be the book to get you there.


  1. I love this book. I reread it every now and then just for a refresher and confidence boost.

    1. I can see why, Stefanie. This and Stephen King's book on writing are my two favorites. They make it all seem real, down to earth, and very doable.