If you read Ann Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life — and if you would like to think of yourself as a novelist or a memoirist, you are strongly advised to do so — be prepared for her disarming, slightly unhinged candor, for relentless reminders that writing is a labor of love (with the emphasis on labor), and for profanity.
Lamott, author of several novels, writer of columns and reviews, and a writing teacher, shares her offbeat wisdom in this book (laced with f-bombs and sh-grenades) whose title is a nod to her writer father, who once told Lamott’s brother, paralyzed with writer’s block on the eve of a deadline for a science report, to take it “bird by bird.”
Appropriately enough, her first piece of advice is to think not about the enormous bulk of the unfinished novel or memoir or other tome looming before you, but about the anecdote or description or dialogue or passage you’re mulling over right now. Then, after you’ve scribbled or typed it, rinse and repeat. Bird by bird. Another metaphor she applies is of a one-inch picture frame — that’s the range of vision you should apply to achieve your focused, detailed objective.
Lamott also gives you permission to write crappy first drafts. (She employs a more pungent adjective.) More than that, she says that crappy first drafts are unavoidable. She tries to convince you — you are convinced, aren’t you? — that everyone writes crappy first drafts, everyone from novices to regulars on best-seller lists.
If you’ve read any writing handbooks, you already know: Just write. Don’t edit. Don’t touch up. Don’t even reread. Just write. But Lamott keeps hammering you about those inevitably crappy first drafts until you surrender and promise her that you will resolutely place those stepping-stones and keep moving forward without looking back.
Bird by Bird at times appears intended for the writer who writes to exorcise personal demons. Lamott repeatedly exhorts readers to write about their childhoods — seemingly implying, their traumatic childhoods, as if there is no other kind. Frank and unapologetic about her neuroses (demented flight-of-fancy hypotheticals are followed by stand-up-comedy quips like “I know this makes me sound a little angry”), she assumes that writing is, above all else, a healing process.
But what if you just want to spin yarns? What if you’re in it for the storytelling, not the psychotherapy? No matter. Protagonists must make mistakes, face challenges, feel doubt and turmoil and pain — otherwise, they are cardboard characters, and they will never feel like flesh and blood to your disappointed readers.
That’s why I like this book: Even if your childhood wasn’t an ordeal, even if you just want to share a tale, Lamott won’t mollycoddle you: Writing fiction or personal narratives is tough. And most writers won’t get rich or famous. Most won’t even get published (at least, not through traditional routes). But writers must write. And they do. Bird by bird.
You can find the book on Amazon.com