Okay, we know it sounds a little weird to describe the tone as snarky and hopeful, but Lamott totally is. You know how Parks and Recreation pokes a bit of fun at Leslie's super ambitious approach to meetings or Ron's libertarian objections to his own job, yet we still really want both characters to be happy?
That's the kind of thing Lamott is great at pulling off, but she does it with a bit of a San Francisco twist. She probably knows more hippies than libertarians, and she's more likely to be commenting on sushi than small-town hamburgers, but she sure manages to combine snark and empathy in a way that makes her a great writing teacher.
Snark and awe. It's a great combination.
This book really is a super great deal: here we get two for the price of one again. In addition to a funny and honest take on Lamott's own life as a writer, we also get a how-to guide for getting through our own writing.
Wouldn't you want to know all the things that were going through Suzanne Collins' head when she first decided to write The Hunger Games? Or what small and funny things happened to J. K. Rowling when she was making up the crazier Harry Potter characters? Or how Stephen King felt when he had a super bad writing day? Or how they all got famous?
Well, Lamott is brave enough to supply that kind of detail about her writing life, plus dish about her adventures as a single mother and member of an eccentric California family with a writer dad.
And besides, she also tells you how to survive writing your own novel, how to get unstuck when you've got writer's block, and even how to get published, if you're super lucky. And why there are other things about writing that are even cooler than publication.
It's like buying How to Survive Your Research Paper and discovering it was written by Rick Riordan.
Yeah, this title sounds a little loopy to start with. What is this, an ad for a Discovery Channel special? Read a bit further, though, and you'll start to realize what a great title this is. It's based on a story Anne Lamott tells about her brother—one most high schoolers can identify with.
Once, when Lamott's older brother was 10, he was struggling to write a report on birds. The teacher had given the class three months to write it, so it was hardly a surprise assignment, but this kid procrastinated. Like, big time: he waited until the day before it was due to start it. He totally panicked. Lamott's father, a writer, put his arm around his son's shoulders and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird" (2.5).
Here's why this is a great title for this book: it's about a friendly, experienced writer helping out a younger writer in a pinch. The advice the more experienced writer gives is to break a seemingly impossible task down into a series of small steps.
In Bird by Bird, that's exactly what Anne Lamott does for us.
Apple pie. Peanut butter and jelly. Chocolate chip cookies.
What do all of these things have in common? They're pretty basic, and that's why they're knock-it-out-of-the-park hits. The last chapter of Bird by Bird has a similarly basic formula, and it's packed with great stuff the way a chocolate chip cookie is packed with chocolate.
In the last chapter of the book, Lamott tells us what she tells her students in their last writing class. It's the perfect place to squeeze in stuff she forgot to cover, things she doesn't want her students to forget, and a few more dashes of snark and inspiration.
Like apple pie, this chapter is a classic.
Lamott's setting is pretty simple: it's where she lives, which happens to be the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1990s. She occasionally tells us stories from her childhood or young adulthood, also in California.
Basically, she's describing parts of her everyday life to us.
This occasionally involves a trip to New York or somewhere else, but mainly we're getting snapshots of the Bay Area as experienced by an eccentric writer. Every now and then we're reminded that it's the '90s because in the book Lamott has recently been protesting Operation Desert Storm or watching Cool Runnings.
But for the most part, the setting isn't all that important here. Lamott is not recreating Bay Area life for us, at least not in this book. She's just trying to show us how to make art out of everyday life.
This is basically a how-to book, with some personal storytelling thrown in as a cherry on top. Translation: this baby's not terribly tough. Lamott lays it all out in a clear structure, she explains writing along the way, and she tells us stories about her 10-year-old brother procrastinating on his report about birds for three whole months. It's pretty relatable and easy to follow.
On the other hand, Anne Lamott sure does like words, and she sometimes throws around complex ones like "ineffable" or "transcendence." She's also big on metaphors, which mostly makes the reader's life easier. But occasionally, she uses a tricky one and doesn't explain because she wants us to think it through on our own.
But overall, this book isn't too hard. It's mostly clear, funny, and really, actually designed to make your life easier when you're writing.
So, yeah, of course broccoli and intuition are the same thing.
Just ask Anne Lamott.
Okay, that's not exactly what she says, but she does use broccoli as a symbol for listening to your intuition. Lamott cites Mel Brooks as her inspiration. She says that in one comedy routine of his, a psychiatrist tells his patient, "Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it" (16.1).
Lamott uses this line as a reminder to listen to your intuition: when you're stuck as a writer, it's best to quiet down and listen for a still, small voice inside. Lots of people got in trouble for listening to their intuitions as children and have never recovered, according to Lamott, and writers need to learn how to trust their unconscious minds to come up with good stuff.
This is a big deal for Lamott because for her, writing is about telling the truth, or at least the best truth you know. You've got to listen to yourself and be honest with yourself if you hope to do that.
To sum up, Lamott says she needs a ridiculous metaphor to help her calm down and not try to control her intuition too much (16.9). We'd say she's found the right one.
The old symbol-o-meter should be beeping out of control when you see Lamott bring up lighthouses in the last chapter of the book. Here's what she says:
Maybe what you've written will help others, will be a small part of the solution. You don't even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don't go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. (29.31)
What we like about this symbol is that it implies you can help other people by writing a great story, and you can do it even without having the slightest clue how it's going to work.
Communicating about our lives as honestly as we can is, well, illuminating (pun totally intended), even if we're only thinking about our own experience at the time. Someone has probably had a similar experience, so when we write honestly, what we say may, you know, shed light (okay, we'll stop) on someone else's experience as well as our own. When we write, we may be unconsciously brightening the way for others. Who knows, if they're in a storm, we might even save a life.
What other job lets you save lives while being basically clueless about how to do it? We bet surgeons can't say that.
It's a package deal. Lamott is telling us her story and telling us everything she knows about writing. And like a lot of package deals, it gives us two for the price of one—two narrative voices, that is.
Lamott tells a lot of her stories from a first-person point of view, with herself as the central narrator. But she also wants to give advice, so sometimes she switches over to second person and addresses the reader directly as "you."
What do we get out of this package deal? We get some really cool storytelling from a famous writer and we get her talking to us directly, almost like we're out for coffee getting secret tips straight from a celebrity.
Ever meet somebody on the bus or at camp who seemed super rambly? Maybe they told you a reaaaaally long story, or two or three, and maybe they kept inserting their opinions on everything from Doritos to Selena Gomez.
The thing is, sometimes you realize afterward that that person's train of thought held together pretty well; it just wasn't obvious at the time.
Bird by Bird is a little like that. It seems to be a long series of funny stories, quirky asides, and funky but fascinating opinions on everything from how to get a new story started to how Anne Lamott thinks some California restaurants serve food resembling various ex-presidents' brains. (She doesn't say which ones.)
Underneath it all, though, Lamott has a pretty organized structure. It's a mark of her skill that the book feels like a fun and quirky ramble, but it's also super organized. The book is divided into four parts, with chapters in each of the parts that—surprise—actually fit together really well.
Here's the lowdown.
Like it says on the package. In this section, Lamott tells us a whole bunch of super useful stuff about writing, from how you get to know a character to how you can tell when you've finally finished the darn thing. Aside from the fact that it's 2 a.m. the night before it's due, of course.
If your job is shooting video of wild lions or bears for the Nature channel, we're betting you don't just need a few how-to guides; you need a whole new mindset. Writing is like that, too—with less chance of getting eaten alive if you fail…depending how you feel about mean comments on Twitter.
Here, Lamott teaches us how to think like writers.
Writers can go a little crazy. No wonder they need support groups, help, and an endless supply of free coffee, as well as other stimulants. (Blame Anne Lamott for this information, not us.) Lamott probably can't mail everybody Starbucks gift cards, but she can tell you how to find other writers to talk to, and she can give a bit of advice about getting unstuck. That's basically what this section does.
Fame, glory, a J. K. Rowling-size royalty check—that's what lots of wannabe writers seem to want. Here, Lamott tells us that we're not likely to get those things. But she does tell us some other good reasons to write.
Anne Lamott has just one chapter to answer any questions she missed and remind us what she thinks is most important about writing. This chapter is a grab bag full of all the final things Lamott has to tell us. It's pretty inspiring, if you like that kind of thing. Maybe not quite a trip to the Grand Canyon, but pretty close.