Book Review: “Bird by Bird”

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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

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11 thoughts on “Book Review: “Bird by Bird””

  1. Loved Bird by Bird. Laughed out loud througout. One thing’s for sure: Anne Lamott is not boring. Her advise is real, simple and invaluable. In fact it may be time to re-read it.

  2. Take the advice given in Bird by Bird with a grain of salt, the big Kosher kind-lest you run off and pen an autobiography thinly veiled as a novel. Exorcised demons don’t just disappear into thin air.
    E.B. White readily admitted a childhood sadly lacking abusive relatives and
    traumatic experiences, so he wrote whimsical, inspiring stories that became classics. Want inspiration? Read Trumpet of the Swan or Charlotte’s Web.

  3. I’ve picked up the book a couple of times and put it down after a short read. Now that I have read your review, I give an earnest try to read “Bird by Bird” again.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. I have read the book and loved it. I took some college courses this past September and one thing we had to do for the English class was begin a blog. One assignment was to find an interesting lead. Even though the quote I used wasn’t in the beginning of the book it still gives an example of what the book is about.

    That post can be found here: .

    This is a great review of the book-this one by Mark Nichol.

  5. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen the same advise elsewhere.

    I’ve broken my novel project down into chapter outlines. Each major scene in each chapter gets a very short descriptive phrase, like, “Character X meets character Y at airport.”

    This list is on a text-edit page next to the window of my WP. When I finish writing a scene, I turn its text color green in the text-edit list. I also use other font colors for scene status: black for the ones I haven’t begun yet, purple is in process, orange for ones needing revision.

    Seeing the list turn more and more green is very encouraging and motivating.

  6. Sorry, I’m a stickler for getting it right the first time, or near abouts. I’ll spend a lot of time in frustration writing a single paragraph if I find it crucial to the story line and won’t go any farther until it’s complete. But sometimes I will ad lib what I want to say so that I don’t loose my thought process when I come back to remedy it after sleeping on it.

  7. Rob,

    I’m like that too; I don’t write rough drafts, I write finished copy. But, after over 159,000 words, I’m starting to loosen up a little, knowing that I’m going to change a lot of it anyway. I still won’t leave technical errors on the page, but sometimes I just have to unstick myself and make some progress.

  8. I love what she said (you quoted that she said) about mulling over the anecdote. I do this all the time and it is so helpful in keeping me from becoming overwhelmed.

  9. I saw this post last week and I did not think twice about borrowing a copy. Turns out I could relate so much to her and she changed my perception on how writing is. Well, I write a lot, but she seems to give you this strength that you can do it, too. No matter what. Just keep on working on it.

    At first I kept on stressing out what my piece would sound like and after an hour I only get a paragraph. It was really frustrating. Then I got this advice about writing all my thoughts down and revise the sentences. It did plenty of wonders in my work.

    Glad I stumbled upon this entry. 🙂

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