Bird by Bird

CC image by steve: they can't all be zingers!!! (primus)

I’m beginning a new series this week featuring books about writing and life. Not the dry, more technical books on writing about plot, structure, dialogue, and characters, but books with a bit more spark in them. These are books about a writer’s journey through life, and their approach to writing.

The first book I’ve chosen is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. I encountered this book in my first creative writing class in college. It was the first of its kind that I read, and it is still one of my favorites.

CC image by James Peacock

CC image by James Peacock

One thing I admire about Anne Lamott is her honesty. She doesn’t shy away from the difficult and unpleasant aspects of life. Her approach is to dive into them, bring them to the front, and explore them thoroughly. Look at this description of herself in the introduction to Bird by Bird:

“I saw a home movie once of a birthday party I went to in the first grade, with all these cute little boys and girls playing together like puppies, and all of a sudden I scuttled across the screen like Prufrock’s crab. I was very clearly the one who was going to grow up to be a serial killer or keep dozens and dozens of cats.”

She not only describes herself with such bluntness, but also the people around her and the world of writing.

Lamott describes writing as “the fly in the ointment.” When you’re thinking about writing you have all of these grand ideas, thoughts, and stories that are going to be wonderful, and you’ll share them with the world who will also think they’re wonderful. But then you realize you have to actually sit down and write. It’s a devastating realization, at least temporarily, that your thoughts and stories are not going to seamlessly transform into a published book.

She continues alternately describing writing as bathing cats, pulling teeth, and a way to keep ravenous dogs at bay. She writes, “…let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those ravenous dogs contained.” In the midst of these vivid descriptions she describes the beauty of books, what they mean to the world, and how they create new worlds within their pages. They are a gift from the author allowing us to pay attention to details we would otherwise miss.

CC image by PDPB

CC image by PDPB

Bird by Bird is divided into several sections, the first of which details Anne Lamott’s approach to writing, techniques that she uses, and ways that she approaches problems. She also gives us the two most helpful things about writing that she knows, the 1-inch picture frame and shitty first drafts.

The first section also discusses a few of the nitty-gritty pieces of writing. Lamott talks about plot and characters as well as dialogue. She details some things to do and not do and explains what has worked for her. She describes writing a story like watching a polaroid develop. You can’t see the picture at first, but as time goes on and you keep working, things slowly become clearer. Sometimes you notice things in the picture that you didn’t see when you took it, and your story changes direction or branches out in unexpected ways. One of the most helpful quotes she has ever read was by E.L. Doctorow that said, “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.”

In the next section she examines how writers view the world. In her chapter titled “Looking Around” she says that, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” A writer begins to see things as part of a whole and can see how they connect. Lamott also touches on how our writing comes from our most passionate beliefs, and without this passion writing is futile.

The last third of the book introduces topics like writing groups and building a community of people that can support you in your writing. People who will be honest with you while also encouraging you to continue. She looks at various reasons to write, certainly not limited to publication, which she views as more of a secondary reason to write. Your main reason should be for people that you love and for yourself, and if you do get published, great.

Anne Lamott presents hope and despair side by side, the agonies she’s experienced right next to the small moments of joy. So often in books or movies we see one or the other, but in real life, they come hand in hand. She talks about being Okay, with a capital O, and how we are probably all going to be Okay, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

Her discussion of 1-inch picture frames and shitty first drafts are two of the most helpful ideas that I’ve heard about writing. The first helps you narrow your focus and not become overwhelmed with the wealth of information and the breadth of a topic. The second not only gives you permission to have a shitty first draft, but tells you that really, there’s no alternative. Everyone’s first draft is shitty, even if they won’t admit it.

She admits to the low self-esteem and dread of being a writer saying, “The only thing to do when the sense of dread and low self-esteem tells you that you are not up to this is to wear it down by getting a little work done every day.” The book ends on a note of hope explaining, after all of these difficulties that writers face, why we should keep writing. And, in the end, it’s all going to be Okay.

Rating: 5 stars
While I think Anne Lamott would agree that there’s no such thing as a perfect book, I think this one comes pretty close in the story it’s trying to tell.

By Melissa Blakely