The first book on writing I ever owned is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I received it as a Christmas gift from my aunt when I was in high school and dreaming of becoming a bestselling novelist. I read the title and thought, “Why is she giving me a book about birds??” But when I read the full title I noticed it said: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
It’s a book I didn’t fully appreciate for a long time until I finally sat down and really read it. I have since re-read it many times and often pick it up to reference particularly helpful passages. I find that I discover something new each time I read it. Now, my copy of Bird by Bird is well worn. It has so many markings and underlined passages I couldn’t even begin to share them all.
Lamott starts by reminding us that, “Good writing is about telling the truth.” She says, “The good news is that some days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.”
Lamott offers this bit of advice about getting started: write about your childhood. One of the first times I read this book, I took Lamott’s advice and I recently came across those writings I had written years ago, reflections about my turbulent years in junior high, a recounting of my awful first kiss. I was grateful to find these pieces, grateful that I had recorded these parts of my life that I’d much rather forget because let’s face it, it makes great material!
Lamott writes about the writing life, and issues like writer’s block, and perfectionism. She offers ways to silence your inner critic (see the chapter on Radio Station KFKD.) She writes frankly and honestly about getting published (and the myth of publication) about which she says, “…if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you’re lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent.” She reminds us the real payoff is the writing itself.
She offers advice, like writing short assignments, carrying around index cards, and one of my favorite bits of writing advice, shitty first drafts (More on that in a future post!)
She writes about character, – it takes time for you to know them – plot, – Plot grows out of character – and dialogue, – good dialogue gives us the sense that we are eavesdropping.
So much of that advice, so much of what I have learned about writing the hard way, is all written here in this book.
Anne Lamott is funny and honest, sharing her own triumphs, tribulations and humiliations. Reading about her experiences reminds me that I’m not alone in those moments when I sit at my computer staring at the cursor blinking back at me, feeling as though I should just give up on writing altogether. Her stories have stayed with me, and have offered solace and humor in my own writing tribulations.
If you are a writer this book is an absolute must-have.