Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

A couple of weeks ago in a Sunday Salon post I listed some books I’d read but hadn’t reviewed, inviting readers to ask me questions about them (copying a Weekly Geeks idea).  This question came from Florinda (who is having an AWESOME 2nd chance CONTEST- Check it out HERE):

Florinda, on August 3rd, 2008 at 4:02 pm Said: 

Bird by Bird is one of my “permanent collection” books – LOVE it.

A couple of questions for you:

The subtitle of the book is “Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” What “instructions” do you think will be most helpful to you, in writing, life, or both?

What are your thoughts about Anne’s expressions of her Christianity? 

Anne Lamott is the teacher I wish I’d had, or the friend I wish I knew.  In reading Bird by Bird, you feel like you’re sitting in her class, or maybe chatting over coffee.  She’s able to give advice without coming across as preachy or better than you- just wise, loving, and experienced.  She acknowledges your fears and encourages you to keep going.  She’s enormously talented and generous with her words.  She’s inspiring, giving you the courage and motivation to just do it and keep on doing it (whatever “it” is- not just writing), all while making you laugh.   Here is what she says about writer’s block: 

“Writer’s block is going to happen to you.  You will read what little you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit. …  Or else you haven’t been able to write anything at all for a while.  The fear that you’ll never write again is going to hit you when you feel not only lost and unable to find a few little bread crumbs that would identify the path you were on but also when you’re at your lowest ebb of energy and faith.”  Pg. 177  

She goes on some more about writer’s block, the reasons for it and the feelings associated with it, before giving her advice:

 “The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do.  We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, to alleviate unpleasant feelings.  But if you accept the reality that you have been given-that you are not in a productive creative period- you free yourself to begin filling up again.  I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams of stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing- just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day.  Then on bad days and weeks, let things go at that.”  Pg. 178

Her advice is to approach writing (or a project of any kind) in a step by step (bird by bird) way, breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks, and trust in the process rather than focusing on the end result.  Her specific writing advice that I’m trying on is to write every day (300 words)- even on a bad day- even when you don’t feel like it, use simple language, write for the love of writing-not the end result, give your best stuff- don’t save it up for later, give everything you have, be interested-look around-pay attention and write about things that matter to you, give yourself the freedom to write anything that pops into your head- to try new things- to not self-edit while writing but to wait and remove things later as necessary.  In general, don’t take yourself too seriously.  It’s good advice.  

On Anne’s Christianity and her expression of it.. I don’t really feel I know enough about it to comment on it.  She seems to love and trust God through all of life’s unexpected turns, and for that I applaud her.  I haven’t read her other work in which she talks about her faith more extensively.  Her younger reckless years are documented at length in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (one of very few end-of-the-century works included on the Modern Library’s listof the 1900s best nonfiction) and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, but I haven’t read those yet.  

But back to Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  I received this book as a gift, and it’s a gift that will be giving back to me for years.  I would highly recommend this book to beginning writers, of course, but Lamott’s little life lessons and anecdotes would appeal to anyone.  I loved this book and plan to re-read it soon, as it’s almost like a warm hug from someone who cares. 

18 Responses

  1. I don’t know anyone who has read this book and HASN’T been affected by it – sounds like you weren’t immune either :-). Very thoughtful answers. Thanks for picking my questions – AND for mentioning my giveaway! You’re in for two entries.

  2. I agree. Great book! When I read it, I had a library copy and I wanted so bad to mark it up, even though I’m not really a marker. Since then, I’ve acquired my own copy and now, I need to read it again and go ahead with the marking instinct!

  3. I am glad that you liked the book and even though my question was not selected, I felt like you answered it anyway.

  4. This is one of my favorite writing books of all time. I copied so many passages down so that I wouldn’t forget them.

  5. This sounds like a great writing book! I’ll have to check it out.

  6. Hadn’t heard about this book before your review ~ sounds like one I need to order right away. Thanks for the insightful review.

  7. That was a great book. I don’t remember her Christianity coming into play in it, but it’s been years since I’ve read it. I need to put it on my re-read list. Great post!

  8. As a writer and a teacher (well, former teacher), I love this book. I encountered it during my first summer with the Mid Ohio Writing Project (part of the National Writing Project), and I’ve been buying used copies where I find them ever since (to give away). Thanks for reviewing it!

  9. When I used to teach creative writing classes, I used this book all the time. It’s one of my favorites. This makes me want to pick it up and read it again! -Julia

  10. I am all kinds of in love with this book, and I push it on everyone I know. Glad you liked it, or we could no longer be friends.

  11. Bird By Bird is one of my favorite books about writing, and I refer to it all the time! I love the anecdote that gave the book its name, and we quote LaMott’s father in our house all the time, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Operating Instructions is also one of my favorite books about parenting–in that it was the first book I read about becoming a mother that really tells it like it is!

  12. This book is almost always on my nightstand. I’ve had it since college and it means something different to me now than it did years ago. So glad to see it on your blog!

  13. It’s too bad she had to include the “faith” stuff because that’ll keep me far, far away from any of her writing.

  14. Hi guys, wow I’m a little surprised at how many of you have read (and cherished) this book.

    Char, seriously I barely noticed any faith stuff. Really. I was surprised by the faith question from Florinda because it doesn’t come across that way- I had to go back and look it over again and really there is almost no mention of it. I think she may have been thinking of one of Lamott’s other books. I understand your feelings because sometimes that can be a real turn off for me too.

  15. I loved this book, too. I think this is one of those few books that inspired me to read EVERYTHING by the author (which I don’t think I’ve done. yet.)

    and I agree with Lisa’s comment back to Chartroose’s comment.

  16. I am reading Bird by Bird right now and I think its a book I will treasure for a long time.

  17. Wow! I haven’t read this book, but now I want to.

  18. Reading her book, all you want to do is hug her.

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