Friday, January 27, 2012

Review: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life by Ann Lamott
Description (courtesy of

"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said. 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'"
With this basic instruction always in mind, Anne Lamott returns to offer us a new gift: a step-by-step guide on how to write and on how to manage the writer's life. From "Getting Started,' with "Short Assignments," through "Shitty First Drafts," "Character," "Plot," "Dialogue." all the way from "False Starts" to "How Do You Know When You're Done?" Lamott encourages, instructs, and inspires. She discusses "Writers Block," "Writing Groups," and "Publication." Bracingly honest, she is also one of the funniest people alive.
If you have ever wondered what it takes to be a writer, what it means to be a writer, what the contents of your school lunches said about what your parents were really like, this books for you. From faith, love, and grace to pain, jealousy, and fear, Lamott insists that you keep your eves open, and then shows you how to survive. And always, from the life of the artist she turns to the art of life.

Frequently, I find myself treating books like fine wine.  I purchase them or get samples of them on Kindle, and I let them age for a while before I decanter them and sample their goodness.

Someone suggested, or I read somewhere that Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life was a great book about writing.  I dutifully filed it away and at some point even downloaded a free sample (a few pages, it may have been a chapter).  And I let it age.  And age.  And age.

I had been smack in the middle of John Green's The Fault in our Stars, which I had hoped to finish this week.  Although I love the characters and I think it's well written, I didn't feel anything pushing me forward in it.  Every time I picked it up, something else would demand my attention.  So I let that sit and age for a little while.  And then, this past week, something funny happened.  I felt like Bird by Bird called to me, inviting me in, telling me it was ready for me, or perhaps I was ready for it.

I turned on my Kindle and began to read.  I liked the tone.  Ms. Lamott is quite funny, laugh out loud funny at times, and she doesn't pull any punches when it comes to telling the truth.  I was two percent into the Kindle version of the book when she was talking about the need for a writer, especially at the beginning, to be willing to try things and make mistakes. She quoted Thurber as saying "You might as well fall fat on your face as lean over too far backwards."

As a perfectionist, this spoke volumes to me.  I had put my creative writing on hold (indefinitely) when I got tired of staring at a blinking cursor or a blank page and stewing in my own juices of self-loathing and (perceived, erroneously, but no less potent) lack of ability to meet my unreasonable expectations.  So rather than deal with that, I stopped writing.  The rub is, I'm a writer.  I will always be writing.  Journals, reviews of television, books, plays.  In some form or another I will always be writing.

So I continued reading.  I loved the tone and hearing about Ms. Lamott's beginnings as a writer.  A few "pages" later, I came across something that floored me, so strongly did it resonate with my own experience. She was speaking about how when she was in second grade she wrote a poem that won an award and appeared in a collection:
I understood immediately the thrill of seeing oneself in print.  It provides some sort of primal verification:  you are in print, therefore you exist.  Who knows what this urge is all about, to appear somewhere outside yourself, instead of feeling stuck inside your muddled but stroboscopic mind, peering out like a tiny undersea animal--a spiny blenny, for instance--from inside your tiny cave?
It was at this point that I understood that this book had the potential to change my life, because what she said reverberated so strongly with my own struggles as a writer.  When I first started taking writing seriously in around December 2011, I was in the throes of an identity crisis.  I loved writing, but at the time, I was clinging a little too strongly to Writer as an identity, fearing that without some such label, I might evaporate or something.  So when my writing inevitably failed to live up to my own tastes, I was back where I was before it began, no matter how many times I tried chanting one of my college rhetoric professor's mantras:  "A writer is one who writes. A good writer is one who writes well."

Using an honest and easy tone of voice and employing a great sense of humor, Ms. Lamott quickly won me over. In this book that has more to do with living than with writing, she talks about growing up with her father, also a published author. She talks about dealing with death and grief and jealousy.  She talks about being a single mother, about losing her father and a close friend to cancer.  She talks about rejection, about failure, and about success.

She advocates focusing on small assignments.  She tells the story of when her older brother was ten and he had a report to write on different types of birds.  He procrastinated and it was due the next day and was panicking.  Their father told him to just take things bird by bird, one at a time. I am going to try and take that advice to heart.

Like Stephen King's On Writing, Bird by Bird is part memoir, part advice for writers.  What's truly beautiful about this book is that it makes an argument for a way, not just to write, but to live in the world.  Remembering to breathe, paying attention, and commitment to craft are just the tip of the iceberg of what you can learn from this book.  Even if you're not a writer, there's valuable advice in here for everyone.

Like when I read King's On Writing, I have not yet read any of Ms. Lamott's fiction, but you can be sure that her books will appear in my to-read list shortly.

I felt called to finally crack open this book I'd heard somewhere or other about, and I was richly rewarded with a new perspective on writing, and on life.  Because God seems to work in mysterious ways, it so happens I was at Union Square in Manhattan the afternoon before I finished reading Bird by Bird, killing time before my night shift at work.  It turns out Ms. Lamott will be giving a reading and signing of her new novel in March. I plan on going, if only to tell her that Bird by Bird changed my outlook on life.

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