What I learned: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

bird by birdI find what you’re about to read a bit of a paradox. Not for you necessarily, but for me as I wrote. These little posts are a way for me to comment on books positively by sharing what they taught me about the writing process. However, this book, Bird by Bird, was all about the writing process and to share too much would do a disservice to the author, Anne Lamott. What ever will I do?

I’m glad you were curious enough to keep reading. And I really love that even if only one person, you, read this far, the preceding line was totally appropriate. And the little “you” tucked into the last sentence. Moving on.

I appreciated this book a great deal. It was on my Christmas book list after it came up on a Google search of books on writing. I’d never heard of her before I saw the book, but I’ve since grabbed another of her works if that gives you any indication of the curiosity she stirred in me.

Non sequitur warning. As I wrote “google” in the previous paragraph the little red “Hey moron, who taught you to spell!?” line showed up underneath. I thought, When is WordPress gonna get with the program and add hip new words like “google” to their spellchecker’s database? Then I capitalized the “G.” Then I realized I am that moron. Then I remembered google was a word far before Google was a company. Then I went back to my original thought, but this time appreciated the oversight because it kept me from using the  mathematical term where I intended the website. To quote the great Marty McFly, “this is heavy.” And it was Marty and his friend Doc who introduced me to the whole idea of a paradox in the first place, which isn’t irony, but many would say that it is…

That paragraph was heavy with something.

That paragraph was heavy with something.

Sorry, what was I writing about?

Dora“Bird by Bird!” Said the annoyed blog reader, like a six-year-old watching Dora the Explorer.

Thanks. I’m having a stream of consciousness morning, but I’m back on task now.

I’ll mention only three things from this book, but it was full of loads of practical advice offered in a sarcastic, self-deprecating, sometimes others-deprecating way.

1)  Commit to a routine. I gleaned this from a story in the book that really wasn’t intended as a tip. She was remembering the daily routine of her writing father and I’ve embraced it as my own. As a father of five kiddos under the age of nine and someone holding down a full-time job to pay the bills, I had to find dedicated time to write when I wasn’t needed elsewhere. Since January, 6:00 – 7:30 AM has been that time, and it’s been a wonderfully productive experiment.

2) Don’t worry about perfection, just write! This admonition is a merging of two different chapters. In the first, Lamott offers the plain but necessary advice to just write the first draft without worrying about elegance, perfect punctuation, an editor, or anyone else. It’s a first draft, a receptacle for the ideas spilling out of your head, a place to be creative and free from inhibition. No one’s going to read it but you, so just write. I completely embrace the idea and it was encouraging to read it from a more accomplished writer.

The second deals with the bully Perfectionism. She’ll (Perfectionism, not Lamott) taunt you while you write and haunt you once you’ve finished. Cackling and pointing, she flies around in your head contrasting you with other writers, reminding you of your past failures, and casting doubt over your dreams. After reading the chapter I was inspired to throw water on that witch (Again, Perfectionism, not Lamott)! You don’t need her. She’s no good for you. Do the best you can and move on.  I needed that advice.

3) Bird by bird. The title intrigued me from the time I saw it. So much so that I didn’t read the back cover before digging in to the book. I savored the story of her brother’s procrastination induced stress over his science project on birds and her father’s sage advice, “just take it bird by bird.” The idea’s a simple one, just focus on a singular idea, or concept, or location, or character, or whatever and write about it. Describe the sun. Write about Joe’s annoying habit of playing with his ear lobe. Does the car have a rattle? Tell us about it. Just write, and let the story begin to flow from the work.

Flipping through the book, I saw dozens and dozens of sentences and paragraphs underlined in read, chapter titles that brought back great thoughts I’ll use as I continue to learn this craft, and practical concepts to keep me humble and focused on the job at hand. She can be quite crass, and her language is seaworthy at times, but I whole heartily recommend Bird by Bird if you are looking for a helpful, encouraging book on writing and the writer.

Keep Discovering Writing.

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4 comments

  1. Ryan,

    A sequitur comment on your non-sequitur comment: Google wasn’t in fact a word before Google the web company. True story, the founders of Google chose to name their company after the word that expresses the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. They did not know how to spell it though; it’s actually spelled “googol.” The Google founders became aware of this some time after launching the company, but chose to stick with the misspelled name, already printed on all the corporate swag.

    If any of that about Google makes you a moron, you are at least in the company of a couple of the brightest, richest morons living today.

    Oh, what a joyous non-sequitur you wrote. It brings to mind something that is of grave concern to most of us with the fancy creative writing paperwork on the walls: the coining of words or phrases and their integration in to respectable society.

    Google is the new Kleenex. In spite of all the preceding, I applaud your attempted use of the verb form “google,” which is what it has become primarily, through the miracle of average American life. The questions you may ought ask are “when will (so-and-so) get with the program and acknowledge hip new words like the verb form google,” or perhaps “how did this happen, has it happened before, and if or when it did, how might it have affected perspective and prose of the time?” All are interesting questions that could be explored for ‘how much time have you got?’ and then some.

    1. Pardon the pun, but Lamott is certainly an interesting bird. Her experience certainly provided some good tools for me to wield as I discover what being a writer is all about.

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