Bird by Bird

Author(s): Anne Lamott
Published:  1994


Overall Thoughts & Roadmap

This is one of the first books about writing that I've read. I thought it was sensitively and beautifully written. The title, "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life", says it all. "Bird by Bird" refers to Lamott's mantra that you need to do little bits of writing/work daily in order to produce something big - little birds add up! "Some Instructions on Writing and Life" expresses what I sometimes have a hunch about but can't quite put into words: to write well is to live well.

This book summary is divided into the following sections: 

(1) What is good writing?

(2) What writing process should I follow? 

(3) What should I write about?

What is good writing?

Good writing is about being conscious to the world and people around you. To write well, you need to soften and wake up to these things around you.

"This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of - please forgive me - wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds"

Good writing is about being respectful, compassionate, and open-minded to what you see. Writing is the process of finding some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in your head.

"Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense."

Good writing is about telling the truth. When you're writing from a place of insight, simplicity, and genuine concern for the truth, you have the ability to switch on a light for your reader. Good writing involves telling stories that are untold; revealing truths that are not seen.

"We write to expose the unexposed. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues."

Good writing is about caring passionately about the thing you are writing about.

"To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on."

Good writing is the product of prioritizing the writing over the marketing and the publishing. The goal of the writer is, first and foremost, to do the writing! Hang on, what about getting published? Getting published is not all that it is cracked up to be - the true rewards are in the act of writing. A true writer wants to be writing, rather than wants to have written something.

"the real payoff is the writing itself, that a day when you have gotten your work done is a good day, that total dedication is the point"

What writing process should I follow? 

Any process that gets you writing! Here are some tips that Lamott discusses in the book.

Do short assignments

Tell yourself that you are just going to write 50 words about something. You don't need to know what you're writing about to get started. Writing is part of the process of discovering what you want to say.

"E. L. Doctorow once said that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard."

Follow the mantra: Bird by Bird

"Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise... That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird."

Write sh*tty first drafts

For most people, the only way to get anything written is to write really bad first drafts. Give yourself the permission to do this.

Don't let the perfectionist inside of you keep you start writing! Messiness is your best friend.

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend."

Giving yourself the permission to write bad drafts is one way to get your subconscious to speak to you. The unconscious mind is where all the good creating is done, where your stock characters turn into real, flesh-and-blood, believable people.

"Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means."

Give yourself a word quota per day

The purpose of this isn't to get yourself to produce words on a page, but to get you in the habit of accessing the part of your brain that is open to the world around you.

"One thing I know for sure about raising children is that every single day a kid needs discipline—so it’s useful to give yourself a minimum quota of three hundred words a day"

Embrace writer's block

This is going to happen to you. Don't fight it. Instead, when you find yourself in this situation, accept that you are not in a productive creative period. The act of accepting will free yourself up to be filled again. Keep writing even if you are getting writer's block. Write 1000 words of dreams, stream of consciousness, just for the hell of it. You need to do this to keep your fingers from becoming stagnant (and because you've made a commitment to fulfil the word quota)!

What should I write about?

Write about things that are most important to you

What you are passionate about will form the basis of the language that you are writing in. So, look into your heart to figure out what you are most interested in.

"If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing, that you lose interest or faith in them along the way, it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately. You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing."

Write about your childhoods

Aspiring writers often hold the false belief that you need to have lived an interesting life to write interesting things. Lamott reminds us of this Flannery O'Connor quote: 

"anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life"

So, don't make the mistake of thinking that you don't have enough experiences to write about.

"Write about that time in your life when you were so intensely interested in the world, when your powers of observation were at their most acute, when you felt things so deeply. Exploring and understanding your childhood will give you the ability to empathize, and that understanding and empathy will teach you to write with intelligence and insight and compassion."

Write letters

I love this idea of writing letters as part of a writing practice.

"When you don’t know what else to do, when you’re really stuck and filled with despair and self-loathing and boredom, but you can’t just leave your work alone for a while and wait, you might try telling part of your history—part of a character’s history—in the form of a letter"

Write a present

I love this idea of writing a present even more! Write something as a present for someone else. Gift someone a funny essay, a poem, a haiku, a short story in which they're the protagonist!

Anything you want!

The bottom line is that no one has too little material to write about. We all have inside of us everything we need to tell our stories. We just need to find ways to tell these stories in a fresh, wild way.

"Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions."