Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

bird by birdI have known of this book for some time – I first remember hearing of it in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones – and recently yet another reference made me finally go looking for a copy of my own. I’m so glad I did. While Writing Down the Bones had some good writing tips, and Keep It Real provided good nuts and bolts, this was a great combination of writing tips, and nuts and bolts, and also heartfelt and encouraging advice about (as the subtitle says) writing and life.

Lamott’s conversational and even confessional tone makes me feel like we are friends – me and her, personally. She tells me confidentially some of the same things she tells her students in the writing classes she teaches; but it feels like I get a more intimate version. Her description of life as a writer is honest; she pulls no punches about publishing and the woes of full-time writing – well, what would I know about it, but at least I believe she has pulled no punches; that’s the impression her tone gives.

We get some a glimpse of Lamott’s life: her upbringing in a joyfully readerly household; her beloved father, the writer; her long and painful journey towards publication, and her discovery that it doesn’t solve the problems of the world or even of her world; her experiences as a single mother. We get to know her good friends. Lamott is hilarious and imaginative as well as kind. I love her; I want to go have a glass of wine with her right now.

As often when I love something, I find myself reduced to listing my favorite lines.

All you can give us is what life is about from your point of view. You are not going to be able to give us the plans to the submarine. Life is not a submarine. There are no plans.

Wonderful. Not a submarine. She is full of these excellent, inventive lines. This is why she is a writer.

Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.

…And, I would add, repeatedly. When I am doing my best work, this is exactly what happens. I don’t know if I’m hypnotized, precisely, but for me the analogy is vomiting: when it’s going well, I just sit down and braaaaaaap it all just… comes out. And later I can go over it and clean it up. But what I needed to get out, I got out all in one go.

Writers tend to be so paranoid about talking about their work because no one, including us, really understands how it works. But it can help a great deal if you have someone you can call when you need a pep talk, someone you have learned to trust, someone who is honest and generous and who won’t jinx you. When you’re feeling low, you don’t want anyone even to joke that you may be in some kind of astrological strike zone where you’ll be for the next seven years. On a bad day you also don’t need a lot of advice. You just need a little empathy and affirmation. You need to feel once again that other people have confidence in you.

Again, this is advice not only for writing but for life. I think I am going to send this on to everyone I might ever ask for a pep talk, so they can be sure to get it right.

Her writing advice is decidedly geared toward fiction, and I am an aspiring writer of nonfiction. But I think there is still a great deal to be gained here. This is my favorite book of writing-and-life advice to date.

Rating: 9 birds, if that’s not too obvious.

4 Responses

  1. […] Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott – nonfiction. Writing advice and wit from a respected mind, with a fun and singular voice. […]

  2. […] Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott – nonfiction […]

  3. […] titles I haven’t read but have faith in by Sanders and Thomas; craft books by Klaus, King, Lamott; and Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, which I am anxious to get to. Sometimes she chose my […]

  4. […] Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott […]

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