Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott sits on a desk with a notebook

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is on many lists of books about writing, and there’s good reason for it.

Like Stephen King’s On Writing, Bird by Bird mixes writing advice with personal stories. It provides insight into Lamott’s life and career, with stories that range from funny to deeply touching, and gives plenty of instruction along the way.

Overview

Bird by Bird: Some  Instructions on Writing and Life

Title: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Author: Anne Lamott
ISBN: 0385480016
Publisher: Anchor

  • Entertainment value: high
  • Usefulness: medium
  • Recommended if you:
    • want general writing advice, especially for writing memoir
    • are seeking guidance from an experienced writing instructor
    • you find value in discussing emotional expectations of writing and publishing

Review

Bird by Bird is full of practical advice and insights into writing life. Lamott discusses her process, things she’s learned along the way, and what lessons she shares with her students. These lessons never feel condescending or like you’re being lectured to; Lamott approaches writing and teaching writing with vulnerability and empathy.

One of the things I find particularly helpful is Lamott’s frankness when it comes to publishing and mental health. Many books talk about how to get published, but not all discuss the difference between expectations about publishing and the reality. Reminders that publishing won’t magically make everything about our lives better are important, especially now that it’s so easy to see highlight reels from published authors on social media that don’t always show the work behind success.

While there are many nuggets of wisdom in this book, there are a few things that are dated, which is probably to be expected with a 1994 pub date. The publishing industry has gone through a lot of change since then, and that isn’t reflected in this book.

For example, Lamott discusses researching by phone and calling up a winery to find out the term for the wire cage over a champagne bottle. Most people would just google those kinds of questions now. There’s also no discussion of self-publishing.

Still, some dated info doesn’t detract from the book’s overall value as a guide. In fact, Lamott’s writing advice makes writing seem doable. While reading this book, it’s easy to get distracted imagining all the things you want to write. Of course, this might be a problem if you’re trying to focus on reading the book, but it’s a good problem to have.

Lessons from Bird By Bird

Taking Steps

The title of this book comes from an anecdote in which Lamott’s brother, ten at the time, had to write a report on birds. He put off, and by the time he had to start, he felt overwhelmed. He just sat in front of all his books and papers, unsure what to do. When he took this concern to his father, the adult advised him to take it bird by bird.

This anecdote perfectly illustrates the overwhelm that comes with facing a blank page. It can be scary to take all your ideas and put them into a comprehensive narrative, so breaking things down, taking it page by page, is a helpful tip.

Writing Shitty First Drafts

Within this bird by bird approach, there isn’t room for perfectionism. Lamott argues that perfectionism is “the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”

Lamott also reassures that “all good writers” write shitty first drafts. These drafts are part of the creative process, and getting words on the page is more important than getting things perfect when you’re starting. The rest will come with revision.

Paying Attention

Lamott says that “writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.”

Again, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when you think of everything you want to convey with your writing, so it’s nice to have a simple reminder of what writing is at its core: communication. Thinking of writing as reflecting back your view of the world rather than as a monumental task or some high art form is helpful when trying to get out that shitty first draft.

Getting Published and Fulfillment

One of the things from this book that I keep coming back to is Lamott’s discussion about getting published. She talks about how so many people hold up getting published as a big achievement that’ll be life changing when that’s not necessarily true.

She writes that if you’re not enough before publishing, you won’t be after. I think this is a really important to keep in mind, especially for those of us who struggle with imposter syndrome and other self-esteem issues.

“Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.”

– Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird

Is there a writing book you’d like me to review? Let me know in the comments.

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