Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Review

Book: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Author: Anne Lamott
Year: 1994
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 

“If something inside of 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. 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.”

Anne Lamott_2Anne Lamott is an American novelist and non-fiction writer. Her parents, by her own admission, “read every chance they got” and she and her siblings were brought up on a healthy diet of books, reason, and a life of creativity. In her memoir Bird by Bird, she talks about the various stages of writing and publishing a book. The book is divided into five parts:

  1. Writing
  2. The Writing Frame of Mind
  3. Help Along the Way
  4. Publication – and Other Reasons to Write
  5. The Last Class

Each section covers subjects that every writer goes through. She does it by telling stories about her writer-father and his friends, her own personal writing journey, and the format is how she teaches her creative writing class. The five chapters discuss self-doubt, courage, ignoring one’s demons, note-taking, writing groups, character and plot treatment, the pangs of publication, and once the book is published (and your life has not made a complete 180-degree turn) how to start all over again.

As a reader, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this book for how down-to-earth it is. She makes no grand promises about the writer’s life. She talks about practical things and the fact that half of the advice in the book can be used in real-life as well, is why the book is titled so. The book is peppered with all kinds of anecdotes and stories from all walks of life – the ones Anne has observed during her life. The memoir starts with how she wrote her first ever book for her father who was diagnosed with brain cancer and the family was battling it together. Her father told her to pay attention to what was happening and take notes. “You tell your version,” he said, “and I am going to tell mine.” When she was finished, Hard Laughter was the first book that would come out of Anne Lamott.

I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem.

This did not happen for me.

The months before a book comes out of the chute are, for most writers, right up there with the worst life has to offer, pretty much like the first twenty minutes of Apocalypse Now, with Martin Sheen in the motel room in Saigon, totally decompensating. 

What makes one love this book is that she is funny. Sometimes, she is funny as hell. There’s nothing hopeless about this book in spite of it being so realistic that it will tell you something simple and shoot straight – do your writing as bravely and honestly and consistently as you can. Then, move on and do it again. It actually makes one look forward to the trip.

Bird by Bird CoverThere’s a chapter in the book titled Broccoli, in which she talks about the importance of allowing your intuition to guide you along the way. The chapter starts, “There’s an old Mel Brooks routine, on the flip side of the “2,000-Year-Old Man,” where the psychiatrist tells his patient, “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” And when I first tell my students this, they look at me as if things have clearly begun to deteriorate. But it is as important a concept in writing as it is in real life.” It simply means that when you don’t know what to do, you let your character tell you what to do, or if we extrapolate this to life, when you don’t know what to do, you allow your gut to tell you what to do. Using horses to say this in one sentence and put it on a bumper sticker, she says, “If you’re lost in the forest, let the horse find the way home.” My plan for this piece of advice is to carve it on a plaque and put it up in my home.

Bird by Bird is a great read. One that I know I will read again. Anne Lamott’s voice is honest and funny, and that does half the job. The other half is done by the sorted and useful advice she gives on writing. For all those looking to get some writing self-help (I don’t know why that’s a bad word. I really don’t) or know what it is that writers feel when writing and producing such wonderful stories, this is the place to go. She makes the ride absolutely worth it. Because she says it herself –

I once asked Ethan Canin to tell me the most valuable thing he knew about writing, and without hesitation he said, “Nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.” 

Think he’s right.



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