I often see Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott on lists of books about writing, and there’s a good reason for it. I first saw it on a relative’s bookshelf years ago, but I finally got my own copy about a year ago and it’s a book I think of often.
Entertainment Value: High
Like Stephen King’s On Writing, Bird by Bird mixes writing advice with personal stories. It provides insight into Lamott’s life and career and the stories she tells range from funny to deeply touching. Her writing rolls along at a pleasurable pace, immersing you easily.
The only problem with reading Bird by Bird is that it makes me want to write. The combination of writing inspiration and easy reading makes me have a hard time focusing, and I find myself thinking about all the things I want to write. But, of course, that’s a good problem to have.
Bird by Bird is full of practical advice from—for example, write shitty first drafts, revise, repeat—as well as insights into writing life. She discusses her process, things she’s learned along the way, and lessons she shares with her students. These lessons never feel like she’s lecturing you or speaking down to you. Lamott approaches writing and teaching writing with vulnerability and empathy.
One of the things I find particularly helpful is Lamott’s frankness when it comes to publishing and mental health. Many books talk about how to get published, but I haven’t seen many discuss the expectations of getting published versus reality. Reminders that publishing won’t magically make everything about our lives better are important, especially now that it’s so easy to see highlights from published authors on social media without seeing all the work they’ve done.
While I think there are a lot of nuggets of wisdom in this book, there are a few things that seem a bit out of date. The publishing industry (and the world) has changed a lot since the book’s 1994 pub date, and these aren’t reflected in the book.
For example, Lamott discusses calling up a winery to find out the name of the wire cage over a champagne bottle cork. I’m sure most people would just google those kinds of questions now. There’s also no discussion of self-publishing.
Still, some outdated information doesn’t detract from the book’s overall value as a guide.
The title of this book comes from an anecdote in which Lamott’s brother, ten at the time, had to write a report on birds. He felt so overwhelmed he just sat in front of all his books and papers, unsure what to do. So his (and Lamott’s) father advised him to take it bird by bird.
This anecdote perfectly illustrates the overwhelm that comes with facing a blank page. It can be scary to try and take all your ideas and put them into a comprehensive narrative. So, breaking it down, taking it page by page, is a productive route.
Writing Shitty First Drafts
Within this bird by bird approach, there isn’t room for perfectionism. Lamott argues that perfectionism is “the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
Lamott also reassures that “all good writers” write shitty first drafts, says that these drafts are part of the creative process, and argues that getting words on the page is more important than getting things perfect, at least when you’re starting. The rest will come with revision.
Lamott says that “writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.”
Again, it’s easy to think of everything you want to convey and to get anxious. So I think it’s nice to have a simple reminder of what writing is at its core: communication. Thinking of writing as reflecting back your view of the world rather than thinking of it as some high art form is helpful when trying to get out that shitty first draft.
Publishing and Fulfillment
I keep coming back to Lamott’s discussion about getting published. She talks about how so many people think of publishing as a big achievement. They think it will be life-changing when that’s not necessarily true.
She writes that if you’re not enough before you get published, you won’t be after. I think this is really important to keep in mind, especially for those of us who struggle with imposter syndrome or self-esteem issues. So I take this advice as a reminder to work on my mental health in addition to my writing. It’s also a call to enjoy writing for writing’s sake.
Have you read Bird by Bird? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.