BIRD BY BIRD
Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anchor Books, 1994
Go to any Barnes & Noble and you’ll find paperbacks packed with didactic clichés and success “secrets” for creative writers. Yet, somewhere in the plethora of this so-called inspirational literature, you might unearth a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird-a humble, entertaining guide that does not guarantee writers a spot on the bestseller list, but offers them 29 witty, warm, wisdom-filled lessons on how to enjoy one’s writing and life.
Published in 1994, Bird by Bird still rings true today, and will continue to enlighten both aspiring and seasoned writers for years to come. The book can be read straight through as a single work, or as a collection of daily meditations.Lamott’s matter-of-fact, conversational tone provides readers with the sense that she is right in front of them, coaching them to live for the moment and write in spite of their foibles: “Don’t worry about doing it well yet…just start getting it down.” She believes people need to “get out of [their] own way” in order to what needs to be written, and that instead of worrying about the future they should take things one at a time-“bird by bird.”
While she forces her readers to face the realities of fear, defeat, self-loathing, and of course, writer’s block, she also enlightens them. In thoughtful, easily accessible prose, she explains, “writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.” She encourages individuals to write even when they’re frustrated, and reminds them that “[h]ope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come-you wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”
Occasionally tortured by the voice of her inner critic, Lamott cannot offer a secret formula to the “land flights of creative inspiration.” She confesses that writing sometimes “turns out to be as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.” Yet, she delivers positive advice throughout her heartwarming anecdotes.
Lamott draws inspiration from family members (i.e. her father who died of cancer), writers such as Henry James, and Native American tribes such as the Lakota. She even ties in a few inspirational poetry clips. In chapters such as “Shitty First Drafts” and “Perfectionism,” she explains it’s okay to make mistakes: “Clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.” She also strings together a series of beautifully crafted metaphors and similes to help elucidate her points. For example, she likens the art of writing to the art of performing on a stage: “Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.”
Bird by Bird leaves readers clear-headed and ready to write, filled with a greater sense of respect for themselves, others, and their surroundings. Every piece of Lamott’s advice belongs on the great bulletin board of life. Whenever a person feels incompetent or depressed, he or she can simply turn to any of the 237 pages for relief.