Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Reviewed By Valerie Comer
Copyright © 2009 by Valerie Comer, All Rights Reserved
Bird by Bird--Some
Instructions on Writing and Life
By Anne Lamott
by Valerie Comer
Anne Lamott grew up with a
writer for a father, a man whose writing friends came over for drinks
and dinner. She felt her father wasn't normal, and that she wasn't, but
she started writing herself at the age of seven or eight, trying to make
sense of her own world.
Lamott has about a dozen
books to her name but has spent much time as a writing instructor. She
says that Bird by Bird--Some Instructions on Writing and Life,
first published in 1994, contains everything she knew about writing up
to that time. The title comes from words her father said to her brother,
who, as a 10-year-old, had put off writing a report on birds for months
until he panicked the night before it was due. How would he ever get it
done now? And their father said, "Just take it bird by bird."
The book is divided into
five unequal parts.
Part One: Writing.
This isn't specifically about writing novels, but learning to express
the thoughts that churn around in our heads. She discusses simply
sitting down at approximately the same time every day, quieting your
mind, and writing, allowing the first draft to be as bad as it needs to
be. Somewhere in the draft, she says, you'll find a sentence or two here
and there that you can use. She has several suggestions of things to
write about if you aren't in the midst of a story.
Lamott urges writers to get
to know their characters and not to worry about plot, that it will come
from the characters themselves. One of her character techniques is to
write their dialogue and to find their individual voices. They'll also
tell you about the conflicts while they're at it, and how to find your
way through the various drafts.
Part Two: The Writing Frame
of Mind. First,
Lamott says, we need to look around us and learn to see the reality of
people, looking into their souls with compassion. She suggests seeing
nature and life through the eyes of a child, everything new and
If you've got a habit of
starting but not finishing stories, Lamott suggests that it may be
because there is nothing at the core of them about which you care
Part Three: Help Along the
this book may offer the most comfort to those who write
seat-of-the-pants (SOTP), and to those who need to let go of rigidity
and give SOTP a try. Lamott likens her process to being aligned "with
the river of the story, the river of unconsciousness, of memory and
sensibility, of our characters' lives, which can thus pour through us,
(a) straw." To do otherwise, she says, puts us at cross purposes with
Lamott doesn't believe in
writer's block, but that the writer is simply looking at a problem from
the wrong angle. Instead of being stuck, it's emptiness, and therefore
the writer needs to fill themselves in whatever way rejuvenates them
while continuing to write something--anything--just to keep the juices
flowing at all.
Part Four: Publication--and
Other Reasons to Write.
Lamott says that writing a book about your life experiences, even if
it's for an audience of one or two, can be worthwhile and therapeutic.
As an example, she wrote about her father's struggle with cancer while
he was going through it, and shared the draft with him as she went
along. The truth of your experience can only come through in your own
voice, she says.
The journey towards
publication is more rewarding than the destination. She reminds us of
the line from the movie Cool Runnings, in which the Jamaican
bobsled team coach says, "If you're not enough before the gold medal,
you won't be enough with it."
Lamott says, "I just try to
warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is
cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much
to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to
do--the actual act of writing--turns out to be the best part. It's like
discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the
caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of
writing turns out to be its own reward."
Part Five: The Last Class.
Lamott says that
becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. Writing is a way to make
sense of the universe and to work through personal questions and
issues. She considers writers lucky because they are able to build sand
castles with words and create a place where their imaginations can
This book isn't about
writing technique so much as about attitude and learning to enjoy the
process. Her humor shines throughout and makes Bird by Bird a
Bird by Bird: Some
Instructions on Writing and Life
By Anne Lamott