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Book Review: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (3/5)

24 Jan

I’ve had this book for way too long. It was recommended to me by a good friend who also writes and she often quoted Lamott about writing techniques and how to get started. I asked for a copy for Christmas many years ago and promptly put it on my shelf to forget about it. Well, I’m finally reading my own darn books and found time for it. I’ll get through the rest eventually.

Cover image via Goodreads

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Summary from Goodreads:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

With this basic instruction always in mind, Anne Lamott returns to offer us a new gift: a step-by-step guide on how to write and on how to manage the writer’s life. From “Getting Started,’ with “Short Assignments,” through “Shitty First Drafts,” “Character,” “Plot,” “Dialogue.” all the way from “False Starts” to “How Do You Know When You’re Done?” Lamott encourages, instructs, and inspires. She discusses “Writers Block,” “Writing Groups,” and “Publication.” Bracingly honest, she is also one of the funniest people alive.

If you have ever wondered what it takes to be a writer, what it means to be a writer, what the contents of your school lunches said about what your parents were really like, this book is for you. From faith, love, and grace to pain, jealousy, and fear, Lamott insists that you keep your eyes open, and then shows you how to survive. And always, from the life of the artist she turns to the art of life.

I was reassured and terrified by Lamott’s advise. She breaks it down and makes it seem so simple. She writes like there is nothing more natural than writing if you put your mind to it and make it your work. But it’s not always that easy. Writing can be a struggle and Lamott recognizes that. She talks about bad first drafts, but what about bad fourth drafts? What if you just don’t get it and never will? What then? Is there only so much writing advise a person can get? I think she conveyed some practical things in this book, but I’m still terrified of not being adequate to implement them.

Lamott talks about herself and the struggles she went through to be a writer. I think it was actually a lot harder than she let on. She mentions briefly having another job while she was writing and being a single mother. Neither of those things is easy. Lamott focused on the lessons she learned that she can teach. I think there was a lot more to her story but it wouldn’t be as translatable to other writers. She played to her audience, budding writers, and not her cohort, working single mothers. It was a smart move but it left the book feeling a little incomplete to me.

Lamott would talk about her students and their struggles and it was those nameless characters that I related to most. I struggle with writing and finding a way to tell my story that someone else wants to read.  It’s a mix of being true to your vision and appealing to others that makes writing so hard. I’m glad she talked about those struggles because she’s at a point in her life where she’s found that voice so it probably never seems as far away as it does for a new writer.

Anne Lamott
Image via Penguin Random House

I liked the first section, about getting started and reigning in an idea. I thought that advice was very easy to apply and realize in my writing goals. It helped me feel okay about having a bad piece of writing but still believing in it. It helped me see how much I may have to tear characters down, but that they don’t have to be out for the count. It spoke most to where I am in my writing process.

As I said earlier, it felt like something wasn’t there. It was as if Lamott had almost taken herself out of the book and what you got was what you’d expect from a removed teacher. I missed some personal details that I felt were left out. She shared stories about her son, but not herself. I wanted just a bit more and found myself searching for it between lines but never finding it.

Lamott has a lot of time and experience in the industry and is uniquely qualified to write this book. I’m so glad she did because, as her title says, there’s no way to go about writing but to do it, one word at a time. I write these reviews one word at a time, my story needs to be the same way.

Writer’s Takeaway: Lamott had a uniquely conversational tone that I can’t compare to anything I’ve read before. She was very formal at the same time and it was lovely to read. A tone is something that’s hard to grasp and harder to perfect and it shows that Lamott follows her own advice and writes every day. That’s something I urge to emulate.

A good book on writing, though not much about the author. Three out of Five Stars.

This book fulfills the 1980-1999 time period of the When Are You Reading? 2019 Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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