Study Guide

Bird by Bird Community

By Anne Lamott


Also, an occupational hazard of writing is that you'll have bad days. You feel not only totally alone but also that everyone else is at a party. But if you talk to other people who write, you remember that this feeling is part of the process, that it's inevitable. (21.18)

It can sometimes be hard for writers to be part of a community, but at least having other writers to talk to can make you feel better. These other writers may be spending the day alone at their desks, too, but at least they can form a kind of community; they're all in the same boat, after all.

Writers tend to be so paranoid about talking about their work because no one, including us, really understands how it works. But it can help a great deal if you have someone you can call when you need a pep talk, someone you have learned to trust, someone who is honest and generous and who won't jinx you. When you're feeling low, you don't want anyone even to joke that you may be in some kind of astrological strike zone where you'll be for the next seven years. On a bad day you also don't need a lot of advice. You just need a little empathy and affirmation. You need to feel once again that other people have confidence in you. (21.19)

Like anything else, with writing it helps to have someone who understands and cares about us. It doesn't have to be another writer—it can be someone who is a good reader, who respects you, who can give you feedback that is actually helpful. Even the best writers need this.

I got to church and my committee had not yet assembled, but four of the church's elders—all women—three African Americans and one white, were having a prayer meeting. They were praying for homeless children. "Can we discuss my personal problems for a moment?" I asked.
They nodded and I told them all about my airline fears and how many moving parts there were to this trip east. They nodded again. They seemed to believe that between Jesus and a travel agent, things could probably be worked out. (17.12-13)

This quote is a classic example of Lamott's brand of self-deprecating humor. It also shows how her community at church supports her in her writing problems. Hey, you never know what you can do when you've got people backing you up.

And he was so glad I'd called. He actually said so, and he sounded like he was. I have secretly believed ever since that he had somehow stayed alive just long enough to be there for my phone call, and that after he answered my question, he hung up, smiled, and keeled over.
"Ah," he said, when I told him what I was after. "That would be the wire hood." (20.10-11)

It's easy to think you're going to be a pain in the neck if you ask people for help, especially people who aren't writers. But sometimes, people are genuinely delighted to share information and advice.

And even though their son will always be alive in their hearts, like Pammy and my dad will be alive in mine—and maybe this is the only way we ever really have anyone—there is still something to be said for painting portraits of the people we have loved, for trying to express those moments that seem so inexpressibly beautiful, the ones that change us and deepen us. (25.20)

Writers, of course, can get source material from a community, but writers can also give something back to that community. And in a way, by giving to the writer, the community is helping the broader community of the audience in general—so the communication is really going in all kinds of directions, and it's surprisingly reciprocal.

There are probably a number of ways to tell your story right, and someone else may be able to tell you whether or not you've found one of these ways. (21.3)

Just as it helps to have a teammate analyze your soccer kicks or basketball moves, it helps to run a piece of writing by somebody. Different people will react different ways, and some of those people will react in ways that are so helpful you'll want to keep showing them your work.

If you look around, I think you will find the person you need. Almost every writer I've ever known has been able to find someone who could be both a friend and a critic. You'll know when the person is right for you and when you are right for that person. It's not unlike finding a mate, where little by little you begin to feel that you've stepped into a shape that was waiting there all along. (22.22)

Looks like some social skills cross over: apparently finding the right date and finding the right writing partner aren't completely different activities. The strategies, at least, are pretty similar. How could you start looking for a writing partner if you want one? Your friends and classmates might be a good place to start.

I would have been so relieved, too, if after Pammy got sick when Sam was eight months old, there had been a book about losing your best friend that was real but also funny. So I ended up trying to write one, weaving together these two stories, of Sam and Pammy, for both of them and for anyone who might know anyone like either of them. (25.9)

Something written out of a super specific experience (like Lamott's own experiences with a close friend and of her son) isn't necessarily just about that one specific experience. Lamott is writing for the larger community of those who might know someone a bit like Sam or Pammy.

I grew up around a father and a mother who read every chance they got, who took us to the library every Thursday night to load up on books for the coming week. Most nights after dinner my father stretched out on the couch to read, while my mother sat with her book in the easy chair and the three of us kids each retired to our own private reading stations. Our house was very quiet after dinner—unless, that is, some of my father's writer friends were over. (Introduction.1)

Community and writing sure got linked up early in Lamott's experience, all the way back when she was a kid. In that way, Lamott sort of got a head start: she knew how to start transforming her experiences into writing, as well as how to start seeing the world like a writer, from a pretty early age.

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