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.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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Reflections: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott | Reflections in a Puddle

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10 Responses to “Book Review: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (3/5)”

  1. Becky Ross Michael January 24, 2019 at 10:55 AM #

    I’m in the middle of reading this book and enjoying it immensely. The part where the author talks about getting started in publishing is quite interesting, but mostly I like her examples of ways to jump into writing and just get your story down! I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything by not reading more about her current personal life, but I’m not finished, and possibly that wasn’t what I wanted in this book. Reading a section before I go to sleep sparks some creativity for the next day:)

    Like

    • Sam January 24, 2019 at 11:03 AM #

      That’s great! I guess the personal life detail I wanted was sparked by her personal stories. Getting a taste of her life but missing everything else felt a bit empty. If the book had been devoid of personal stories, I’d probably feel differently. Enjoy the rest of the book and happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Book Club Mom January 24, 2019 at 2:44 PM #

    Hi, I’m glad I saw this. I read another book by Lamott, Traveling Mercies – Some Thoughts on Faith and in it, she relates many personal stories. I didn’t know she also wrote a writing advice book. Sounds like the “bird by bird” approach is a good one!

    Like

    • Sam January 24, 2019 at 8:28 PM #

      I’d say so! Great to get her advice. It sounds like the vague personal references wouldn’t have bothered me as much if I’d read her other books first. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. silverbuttonbooks January 25, 2019 at 9:46 AM #

    This looks like a fascinating book for anyone who has to write and I love that phrase, “Bird by Bird.” Great review, I’ve added it to my TBR list!

    Like

    • Sam January 25, 2019 at 9:57 AM #

      Awesome! It was referenced more and more often as I researched writing. I’m glad I was finally able to read it. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Rae Longest January 26, 2019 at 3:49 PM #

    Many authors even those who have published many books, often fall short when trying to write ABOUT writing or How to Write. Stephen King’s book, On Writing is the perfect example. Lamott’s book B by B is the same. I had the same reaction to both books mentioned as you described in this post!

    Like

    • Sam January 26, 2019 at 4:16 PM #

      I feel some of the best books on writing that I’ve read aren’t by famous writers. I liked On Writing more than this one, but I think having listened to King read the audiobook was a big part of that. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Aislynn d'Merricksson January 28, 2019 at 7:19 AM #

    Lovely review! I’ve tried several times to get into this book cause it was recommended as a good writingcraft book, but I just couldn’t get into it.

    Like

    • Sam January 28, 2019 at 8:02 AM #

      Yeah, it was a struggle at times but I think most writingcraft books are so it wasn’t too much slower than I expected. Happy reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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