Book Review: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
"[W]riting and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul." - Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, p.237
If you're looking for raw advice on how to write and how to live as a writer, look no further. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (1995, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group) is as real and honest as it gets—and funny, too. But perhaps it's hard to describe a topic like making a living as an author in so unvarnished and candid a tone without bringing humor in to temper the sour flavor the poor starving artist life leaves on your tongue. Lamott pulls from her experience as an author, daughter of a writer, and a teacher of writing to make the writers who read this book feel a little less out to sea.
Lamott doesn't sugar coat the writing life. You're not going to close the book dreaming of hours whiled away with quill pen in hand, penning a perfect masterpiece at your heavy walnut desk, while royalty checks stack up in your mailbox. Instead, you're going to laugh-cry at the realness of Lamott's view of what writing is: the absurd process of marching four times as many words as you'll ever need into companies of sentences, kicking half of them to the curb, supplanting half of the lonely remaining words with other, superior words, and then rearranging them all a couple times over until the result isn't horrendously terrible.
She digs into aspects of a writer's life that I haven't seen in other books on writing. For instance, there's an entire chapter about professional jealousy, in which Lamott discusses how when you are a writer, and some other writer friends have success, you will probably have a phase where you feel jealous of them, because are they really a better writer than you are?
Despite being nearly 20 years in print, the book still felt relevant and relatable. Lamott writes,
"Writing takes a combination of sophistication and innocence; it takes conscience, our belief that something is beautiful because it's right. To be great, art has to point somewhere."
(Read my review of Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd!)
The writing process
I enjoyed the chapters about the process of writing. Lamott emphasizes mindfulness: being aware of your inner critic and gently moving it out of the way so that you can continue writing. She explains how writers can both love and hate feedback, since feedback is how we improve … but it can be hard to hear that you need to improve.
To get started, Lamott promotes the idea of "short assignments"—essentially, you approach writing gently; you start by writing just a little bit, something small and manageable, like eating just one baby carrot at lunch when you want to start eating more vegetables. All of a sudden you find yourself gobbling up the whole bag—crunch! crunch! crunch!—or, maybe you don't, but at least you've eaten one carrot today. It's progress. Lamott's short assignments are very similar to my incremental method for getting things done.
Lamott is a discovery writer. She advocates for the fast first draft, in which you write and write and write, figuring it out as you go, and then revising from there. But there are two (well, three) kinds of writers: those like Lamott, who don't do any planning at all; those who plans and outline everything first; and the hybrid writers who do some outlining and some making it up as they go between points in their outline.
If you're a planner, some of Lamott's advice will feel impossible. She doesn't mention outlines at all. On the bright side, there's so much wisdom packed into this book that even if you're a planner, you're guaranteed to strike advice nugget gold.
Lamott has a unique take on writer's block:
"The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you're empty."
She argues that instead of finding a new place to sit and write, instead of just trying to write anyway, you need to fill back up with experiences and ideas so you have things to say. You can unstick by collecting information and stories from outside yourself. You'll spark an idea, and suddenly the words will flow again. I think this is absolutely correct; it's one of the reasons I read so much!
(Read my review of Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury!)
Why do writers write?
Lamott digs into why writers decide to write, since, as she notes, there are plenty of other professions that pay more and are less stressful. Foremost is that many writers feel most alive when they are writing:
"I tell them [my students] that sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something. It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them, and they just want to help them get out."
But there's more to writing than the joy of it. Lamott has a unique argument that writing is about giving:
"Your three-year-old and your work in progress teach you to give. They teach you to get out of yourself and become a person for someone else. This is probably the secret to happiness. So that's one reason to write."
"What your giving can do is to help your readers be braver, be better than they are, be open to the world again."
Writers write because they have some truth to share. They have experience to give. They have a drive to understand. And they want to gift that understanding—of ourselves, each other, and our potential.
"We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you've already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues."
Writing is about truth and vulnerability
To write well, you must know yourself and seek truth, says Lamott:
"The writer is the person standing apart… Your job is to present clearly your viewpoint, your line of vision. Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate sense. Then you can recognize others."
Emotion and vulnerability are at the core of excellent writing:
"If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don't worry about being sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you're a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive."
Should you read Bird by Bird?
This book will appeal to writers (or those trying to gain insight into the life of a writer), especially writers with self-esteem issues, which is many of them. Lamott is there at the keyboard with you; she understands the depths writers can get into; she has sympathy for professional jealousy, imposter syndrome, second-guessing oneself, hating and loving feedback, and everything that is part of a typical writer's life.
"You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started."