Bird By Bird
About the project
“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”
To all who write or ever wanted to write, Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott carries its readers through the treacherous swamps of writing from beginning to end. Intended for an audience of readers that are aspiring to be more successful in their field, the pages feed warm, generous and hilarious instructions on writing and on life. Beginning before a word hits a page and ending with publication, Lamott carries her reader through the entire writing process, start to finish.
Lamott grew up in a family of readers and writers. Her mother would read every chance she could get, going to the library every Thursday night and loading up on books for the week. Her father was the writer, waking up at 5:30 every morning to write for a couple hours in his study. From the youngest age reading and writing began to flow through her veins, form and shape itself into her deepest passion. She began to put a little bit down on paper everyday, allowing herself to be bold, original, and make mistakes. She followed her father’s advice: “Do it every day for a while. Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.”
Before Bird by Bird was published in ’94, Lamott had nine novels and creative, non-fiction books written and published. At the time of writing this book, she was not only a full-time writer, but also teaching multiple writing classes to students of all ages. “The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth” (3). And this is where Lamott sets the stage for the rest of her book.
Lamott emphasizes to the new writer to get the words and memories down and not to worry whether the writing is good or bad. She suggests sitting down at the same time every day to train their unconscious to kick in creatively. The problem, though, is all of the eager want-to-be-authors that write to be published, to be known, to have a best seller and be the next C.S. Lewis. To them Lamott appropriately quotes E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you; step by step, day by day, word by word, and finishing each one short assignment. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people…write lots and lots of terrible first drafts, and you’ll learn that good second drafts can spring from these, and you’ll see that big sloppy imperfect messes have value” (28, 30).
Lamott continues chapter by chapter to explain how to create the best characters, how to set an engaging plot and how to write the most creative dialogue and set design. The reader is told to paint their character, to be open to their personalities, and to use dialogue to nail their personality.
After the reader is walked through the literal writing process, Lamott gives helpful hints and matchless advice giving practical applications to the writer. She suggests picking up all help along the way- writing in groups and having accountability for deadlines, finding a writer friend that will read your drafts and letters, and to persevere through writers block and lack of inspiration, which is normal for every single writer. She encourages the writer to find their voice, to give themselves to the piece, and that writing is about writing, not publication.
As an aspiring writer, failing more often than not, this book sits on my shelf as a daily encouragement to my feeble writing life. Although the middle of the book ran a little dry, as Lamott depicts characters and plot and dialogue and blah blah blah, the beginning and the end infiltrated into my soul. The stories she shares from her own writing life, her own trial-and-error learning process, and the invaluable lessons she’s picked up after years of writing word after word after word changed the way I will read and write for the rest of my life. This book isn’t a quick, read it once, learn it all type of book. This is one that I will refer back to on a regular basis, to feed inspiration and knowledge and wisdom to my writing life. Lamott addresses all my fears, insecurities and uncertainties in my writing: “Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done” (226).
But regardless of my fears and insecurities, my wounds and my screw-ups, the painful journey that writing can bring, with the reality of ‘I just want to be published!’ the pages of this book deeply encouraged me to persevere and endure whatever voyage writing will take me on. “You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander” (231).