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Okay, so by now, you know this isn't a novel, nor is it fiction, so it doesn't exactly have characters as we usually think about them. But there are a few people in Bird by Bird who keep turning up, and they almost become characters in their own right. We'll take a peek at a few of the most important (and real) people in Bird by Bird, starting with our main girl, Anne.
Let's get to the facts first. Anne Lamott is a real person, so she's got a real bio. First of all, it should come as no surprise that she's had some major writing successes; she's hit The New York Times bestseller list a bunch of times. She also landed a Guggenheim Fellowship, which is like going to the Olympics if you're a writer. She even made it to the California Hall of Fame, along with celebrities like Robert Downey Jr. and Bruce Lee.
Actually, she got there first.
But Lamott has plenty of suffering-artist street cred, too. In the book, she describes years of barely scraping by, cleaning houses or teaching tennis or taking temp work so she can keep writing until she finally starts making a reasonable amount of money around her fourth published book (Introduction.56).
She talks about trying to make it as a writer and a single mom, which she finds deeply satisfying and pretty maddening at the same time. And she shares poignant but really tragic stories about close friends and family members who have died, as well as stories about how she has tried to cope with these and other challenges in her life.
So when Anne Lamott says she's giving instructions on writing and life, she's not kidding.
What if you got to sit down with a New York Times bestselling author and have that author tell you everything she knows about writing? That's basically what Lamott is offering us in Bird by Bird. She makes herself a character, so it feels like she's telling us everything we'd learn if we got to attend one of her writing classes.
Even better, we get asides here and there about how her class responds to what she's saying or what she's learned in her years of writing and teaching, so in some ways, we're getting even more than we might in one of her classes.
So, what's the Anne Lamott who tells us her secrets like? In Bird by Bird, she's funny, honest, and a little messed up. We see these traits when she suggests that a little ritual may help you start the writing day. Actually, she says, "Any number of things may work for you—an altar, for instance, or votive candles, sage smudges, small-animal sacrifices, especially now that the Supreme Court has legalized them. (I cut out the headline the day this news came out and taped it above the kitty's water dish.)" (17.3). Sure, it's a joke, but kind of a sick one.
Lamott is also brutally honest, and she's more than willing to let us in on the tough parts of writing—like the time her editor flunks her novel twice (chapter 12), or the days when she thinks orthodontia is more interesting than her writing job (2.2). Seriously, here's just part of how she describes what happens when she sits at her desk and tries to write:
After a moment I may notice that I'm trying to decide whether or not I am too old for orthodontia and whether right now would be a good time to make a few calls, and then I start to think about learning to use makeup and how maybe I could find some boyfriend who is not a total and complete fixer-upper and then my life would be totally great and I'd be happy all the time, and then I think about all the people I should have called back before I sat down to work [...]. (2.2)
Well, there you have it, folks: famous writers have bad days, too. This is great new for us because if Lamott can be a good writer while battling all these things, there's a good chance we can, too.
Lamott is also full of reasons to keep writing and, even better, practical tips on doing just that. She can tell you how to get started when you're stuck or how to make a piece about school lunches fun to read. She can even tell you a bit about how to get published and avoid libel lawsuits (29.5-19).
Finally, Lamott genuinely cares about writing, and she genuinely cares about writers. We can tell from her impassioned pleas to tell the truth in our writing—not to mention her wacky comparisons between writing and building the pyramids (29.27)—that she really loves the writing life and that she really cares about writers, even new ones who aren't famous. Here's a bit of what she says:
There are moments when I am writing when I think that if other people knew how I felt right now, they'd burn me at the stake for feeling so good, so full, so much intense pleasure. I pay through the nose for these moments, of course, with lots of torture and self-loathing and tedium, but when I am done for the day, I have something to show for it. When the ancient Egyptians finished building the pyramids, they had built the pyramids. Perhaps they are good role models: they thought they were working for God, so they worked with a sense of concentration and religious awe. (Also, my friend Carpenter tells me, they drank all day and took time off every few hours to oil each other. I believe that all my other writer friends do this, too, but they won't let me in on it.)
Hey, we never said Anne Lamott wasn't wacky.