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Lamott's family is just a little bit like The Incredibles. She and the fam appear to live in a relatively normal middle-class community in California, and they do things like sit around reading after dinner. But underneath it all, Lamott's dad has a superpower: he's a writer. And when his writer pals are around, things get pretty exciting.
Just like Mr. Incredible and Frozone can't quite stay normal, even when they're trying, neither can Lamott's dad.
Lamott's family is important in another way, too: they're people for whom Lamott writes. Not to get you too down in the dumps, but Lamott says it herself: "Twice now I have written books that began as presents to people I loved who were going to die" (25.2). Seriously, she pens her first real book as a present to her father when he's dying. When he finds out he has brain cancer, the whole family is devastated. But Anne and her dad agree that as one way of coping and expressing their love for each other, they'll each write a version of the story of his illness and eventual death. As Lamott says:
In a sense, I was giving him a love letter. He never got his version of the story written, but the miracle was that I finished mine while his brain was still working. He got to read the whole thing. He got to know that he and his story were going to exist long after he took off his dog suit and went to the great beyond. (25.3)
Lamott's desire to write something for her father becomes a poignant gift to her family—and to other readers, too, particularly those dealing with similar issues.
In time, Lamott also finds herself writing for and about her son, Sam. He gives her a reason to care about the future and to write. For example, at one point, Lamott gets stuck trying to write about being a baseball fan, something an editor has asked her to do. She's getting panicky with anxiety about publication, so she starts thinking about the piece as a letter she's writing to Sam that will help him understand how much sports mean to her. She starts out:
"Dear Sam," I wrote at the top of the page, "I want to tell you about how I loved the San Francisco Giants when I was a little kid." Instead of imagining the editor peering skeptically over my shoulder as I wrote, I pictured Sam sitting down to read this one day, how glad he might be that I had gotten it down. I started telling him my memories of the strangely reddish dirt of the base paths, the gunfire of batting practice, the feel of being part of a healthy mob, part of a pulse, part of a collective heartbeat. I called friends and compared notes about what it felt like to be a part of a huge struggle, where people were winning and losing and triumphing and being humiliated, and for once it wasn't you. Then I told Sam about this, on paper. (23.5)
Even Lamott's brother makes a splash in this book: the whole "bird by bird" thing comes from a story about him. What's the story? Well, when Anne was a kid, her brother got completely stuck when he was supposed to write a report about birds for school. Papa Lamott put his arm around his son's shoulders and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird" (2.5). (See our "What's Up With the Title?" section for more on that.) That's one of the central ideas of the entire book: you can write pretty much anything if you just take it piece by piece.