Vision: A Resource for Writers

Welcome to the archives.  Current Issue is here


Book Review:

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

Reviewed 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 exciting.

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 passionately.

Part Three: Help Along the Way. Ultimately 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 the river.

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 wander.

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 refreshing read.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

By Anne Lamott

Published by Anchor

ISBN 0-385-48001-6