Walk into any bookstore today, and you’ll find countless books on how to be a better writer, many claiming to hold the closely guarded secrets to instant success in the publication industry. Anne Lamott, however, doesn’t make any promises in her book “Bird by Bird,” but it’s her honesty and personalized touch that have drawn aspiring writers to it for nearly 25 years.
If you haven’t read “Bird by Bird” yet or have been on the fence about it, here’s why you should read this nonfiction piece that is considered a classic by many in the literary world.
A Writer’s Beginnings
“Bird by Bird” opens with Lamott discussing a childhood shaped by her writer father and a house brimming with books in every nook. She acknowledges how her classmates mocked her for her strange appearance, how she dropped out of college at 19 to become a full-time writer and how she didn’t find financial success until after the publication of her fourth novel.
You would be right in thinking that none of that sounds like material for a book on how to improve your writing, but it’s Lamott’s openness about her setbacks that endears herself to readers, many of whom can relate to her struggles. Take, for instance, Lamott’s anecdote about how she first got published for her poem about astronaut John Glenn while still in second grade.
Lamott says, “I understood immediately the thrill of seeing oneself in print. It provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist.”
Publication is many writers’ way of seeking validation, and “Bird by Bird” reveals Lamott as no different. She doesn’t write herself as a genius who turns every manuscript into a bestseller. In fact, Lamott admits that she wrote some terrible stories during high school, believing that she could imitate the works of her favorite authors.
On the Writing Life
Lamott devotes a chunk of “Bird by Bird” to discussing the inner workings of writing, including topics such as the benefits of index cards, disciplining yourself to write at the same time every day, writing imperfect first drafts and the evils of perfectionism.
A concept that stood out to me was Lamott’s advice to rely on at least one person to provide feedback on first drafts, recognizing the writer’s need for community in a field that can often be socially isolating. When it comes to other writers, Lamott shares her personal story of quelling jealousy towards the success of a friend, harnessing the power of writing to rid herself of such emotions.
The author also mentions silencing the rational part of your brain responsible for thoughts of anxiety, doubt, guilt and embarrassment. She tells readers, “You need your broccoli in order to write well.” In other words, you need your intuition to get the creative juices flowing in your mind.
Lamott doesn’t sugarcoat the constant mental battle that starts once you sit down to write, but she also elevates writing to its finest form, which she says can be discovered when letting go of outside influences, revealing the truths hidden inside an individual. Lamott understands the overwhelming task of writing, advising young writers to start off by writing topics they’re intimately familiar with, like lunches and their childhood.
It’s a person’s honest account of their own experience that allows room for natural growth in their characters and story arcs, and where readers can rely on writers to mirror their lives without distortion.
The Reality of Publication
It’s Lamott’s shameless candidness about writing and life that separates her from the hundreds of other books on writing. She doesn’t slather undue praise on the publication industry, but instead tells readers the startling truth about how only a slim number of them will make it as a writer. Lamott speaks from experience, having escaped from her early idealization of publication the hard way.
She says, “I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem.”
Lamott goes on to explain, however, that publication isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, which often comes as a surprise for ambitious writers. She explains how publication doesn’t magically solve your problems, going into her bouts with pre-publication anxiety, not to mention the early scathing book reviews that criticized Lamott’s book about her dying father as overly sentimental and completely dull. Despite the negatives she attaches to the publication industry, Lamott balances them with an equal measure of encouragement to readers.
In her writing workshops, Lamott states that while only one writer in a class will likely make a living as an author, writing for writing’s sake is a brave endeavor for anyone willing enough to share their thoughts with others. Writer’s block will happen to you eventually, Lamott notes, but that doesn’t stop the act of writing itself as a reward all on its own.
The Relationship between Family and Writing
Probably one of my favorite aspects of “Bird by Bird” is the fact that Lamott doesn’t talk down to you, choosing instead to adopt the conversational and intimate tone found in every page of her novel. While the book does center around writing, she manages to connect her personal life to writing in general.
The reason “Bird by Bird” has left such an impact on both writers and readers is because she writes not only from an accomplished author’s viewpoint but also as a daughter, a sister and a mother. Her father’s diagnosis and eventual passing from brain cancer influenced her to write her first novel, “Hard Laughter,” in 1980, which opened her eyes to the realities of publication. In addition to her father’s death, the untimely passing of a dear friend years later would remind Lamott to live every day to the fullest and to never let fear take over her writing.
When talking about discipline, Lamott likens it to motherhood. “One thing I know for sure about raising children is that every single day a kid needs discipline,” the single mother writes. She advises aspiring writers to meet a minimum of 300 words every day, saying that characters and the story they inhabit are a lot like a 3-year-old in that they require constant attention for proper care.
The most memorable story that Lamott shares in her novel occurs in her childhood, when her older brother procrastinates on a bird report due the next day for school. Lamott remembers how her father comforted her sobbing brother by giving him advice that would become the centerpiece for her novel.
“Bird by bird, buddy,” he said. “Just take it bird by bird.”