Happy January, everyone! This month I’m reviewing Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Reading and on Life by Anne Lamott.
Anne Lamott is the author of several literary fiction novels and autobiographical non-fiction books. I have never read her work, but she is described as a “best-selling” author and has won several awards for her writing. I think it’s safe to say that she knows what she’s doing and has something worthwhile to say on the subject even though she’s not a household name.
The only other book on writing I’ve read was On Writing by Stephen King. I really liked the book, and it gave some practical advice, but I wanted the perspective of an author with a different sort of career this time. Stephen King has had a one in a million type of career experience. Most authors don’t get a $100,000 advance for their first published novel. Most writers aren’t household names. Anne Lamott has done well for herself, but she barely eked by for a long time before the advances started getting bigger, and the royalties began adding up. She’s popular in certain circles, but many people have never heard of her. For most writers, that’s what a career- a successful career- looks like.
I also wanted to get the perspective of a female author. Lamott has managed to make a literary career for herself while being a single mother. Women in the arts often find themselves juggling family and career in a different way than men. These responsibilities can make it even harder to stick to a career choice that doesn’t seem financially promising.
Bird by Bird was an astonishingly honest and unexpectedly moving portrait of the writing life. It was also laugh-out-loud funny. She gave a lot of practical advice, but what I appreciated the most about her book was the sense of validation she gave me. It’s OK that my first drafts are ‘shitty,’ It’s normal to struggle with plot creation or with getting to know your characters. These aren’t just ‘beginning writers’ problems; they happen to everyone.
She talks about calming your insecurities and letting go of perfection. She talks about how writing can enrich your life, even if you don’t ever get published. If you’ve ever felt that writing is hard, wondered if you’re really good enough or why you are putting yourself through this, then Bird by Bird is the inspiration you need. Lamott’s passion for her art comes through on every page, and some of that soaks into the reader.
Lamott gives several practical tips that any writer can start using right away. She recommends writing about your childhood as an exercise to awaken your subconscious and reconnect with your creativity. One tip I particularly liked was her letter-writing trick. She suggests that if you don’t know what to write, start writing a letter to someone. You don’t have to send the letter or show it to the person, but writing in this way, to someone you know and trust can help to take some pressure off and get your thoughts flowing. You can write about anything you want and not worry about whether it’s “good” or not.
Lamott gives some advice that is similar to advice I’ve heard or read before, but much of it is unique or at least told from a different perspective. I especially enjoyed the chapter “Set-Design”. In this chapter, she does a beautiful job of describing how setting can be used to communicate about character and plot. One thing she talks about in this chapter and throughout the book is ‘calling around.’ Lamott is my mother’s age, she began life in a world without the internet, when finding information involved speaking to real, live people. Now, I’m a social anxiety girl, so phone calls don’t always appeal to me. But Lamott made a good case for calling people to get the information you need for a book. When you hear the information in a person’s own words, not in an edited piece of online writing, you get to hear wit and emotion that you can use to enrich your work.
I think it’s worth it to read more than one book about writing, because each writer will contribute some unique insights, but also because you get to see what’s the same across the board. Lamott, like King, discusses the importance of being emotionally honest in your work and not avoiding your personal pain points. She also emphasizes the need for outside feedback in the form of writing groups or friends to read your drafts. Like King, she also discusses some of the common struggles that writers deal with in their personal lives, like mental illness and addiction. She uses her work as a form of therapy, and she encourages her readers to do the same. She and King both tell their readers to pay attention to life, to be fully conscious of it so you can write profoundly and powerfully about what matters, to use life’s struggles as material. I think that seeing these places of overlap, where two very different people are giving the same advice can help to validate that advice.
Lamott shares many quotable words of wisdom about writing (and about life), such as: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” Bird by Bird is so densely packed with advice and insight that I think it’s impossible for anyone to get everything out of it in one read. I will most likely be purchasing this book and rereading it whenever I need a jolt of inspiration or when I feel stuck on something specific. I will probably also write some lines from it down and tape them up by my desk. Many of you, I suspect, will feel the same.
If you decide to read this book, I would love to know which parts resonated with you the most. What are your favorite quotes? Please leave them in the comments.
Next month I will be reading another non-fiction book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer.