Study Guide

Bird by Bird Dissatisfaction

By Anne Lamott


My writer friends, and they are legion, do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment. Most of them go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested. (Introduction.55)

Yeah, doesn't sound like most of Lamott's friends are thrilled with their lives. But she still seems awfully sold on writing. Why do you think this is? Could it be that the dissatisfaction is actually totally worth it?

I had a book published! It was everything I had ever dreamed of. And I had reached nirvana, right? Well.
I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem. This did not happen for me. (Introduction.37-39)

What? Publication doesn't instantly make you famous, rich, and happy? Well, who knew. Maybe publication is more the start of a journey than the end of one. Whether you think that's exciting or depressing probably says a lot about who you are and what you value.

And then I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. (Introduction.55)

Lamott says stuff like this so many times you'd think she would start to come across as a downer. But actually, it's kind of nice to meet someone who can admit that fame achieved through writing hasn't solved all her problems. Writers: pointing out that no, you can't hack happiness since…the beginning of time.

But while he helped the prisoners and me to discover that we had a lot of feelings and observations and memories and dreams and (God knows) opinions we wanted to share, we all ended up just the tiniest bit resentful when we found the one fly in the ointment: that at some point we had to actually sit down and write. (Introduction.4)

Being a writer isn't all signing multimillion-dollar film contracts and getting interviewed on TV. You actually do have to turn up to work at your desk, which turns out to take a lot of unglamorous self-discipline. On the bright side, you can do it in your pajamas.

I've managed to get some work done nearly every day of my adult life, without impressive financial success. Yet I would do it all over again in a hot second, mistakes and doldrums and breakdowns and all. (Introduction.45)

Wow. It may not sound like it, but what Lamott says here really is quite a recommendation. If someone is still sold on a career that didn't make her a ton of money, caused lots of stress, and was full of small disappointments, there's gotta be something seriously great about it somewhere. And there is: Lamott thinks writing changes who we are as people and is ultimately one of the most satisfying things we can do.

So after I've completely exhausted myself thinking about the people I most resent in the world, and my more arresting financial problems, and, of course, the orthodontia, I remember to pick up the one-inch picture frame and to figure out a one-inch piece of my story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange. (2.5)

Writing sounds super hard when Lamott talks like this, but that's why she encourages us to take it slowly, bird by bird, getting small, important things right first. You can't do it all at once. Even if you wanted to, you couldn't write War and Peace in a day. Even Tolstoy didn't do that.

So I tell them what it will be like for me at the desk the next morning when I sit down to work, with a few ideas and a lot of blank paper, with hideous conceit and low self-esteem in equal measure, fingers poised on the keyboard. I tell them they'll want to be really good right off, and they may not be, but they might be good someday if they just keep the faith and keep practicing.  (Introduction.54)

Writing is kind of like shooting hoops or playing electric guitar; it's not so much about obvious talent as it is about doing it over and over. Even a naturally talented writer isn't going to get very far without hard work.

Another piece of the solution came when a poem by Clive James, called "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered," appeared one Sunday in The New York Times Book Review. "The book of my enemy has been remaindered," it begins, "And I am pleased." It helped more than words can say. Oh, what blessed relief for someone to be as jealous and spiteful as me and to make those feelings funny. I called everyone whose advice I had sought and read it to them. Everybody howled with recognition. (18.26)

One of the most endearing things about Lamott is her honesty. Even when she's being honest about just how hard life as a writer can be. Here she's talking about how publication and recognition are not necessarily fair: some bad writers with their bad books are gonna get rich and famous, and there will be people out there talking about how great they are…even if they really are crap. That's just how it works, and you're gonna get angry about it.

"Beth, Beth," the shop owner called out suddenly. "Come here!" A young woman stepped out from the back room with an expectant look on her face. "Beth," the owner said, "don't I read everything? Tell her!" Beth said yes, yes, this is true, she reads everything. Then the owner looked at me kindly, and said, "Now come on, what's your name?"
I sighed, smiled, and finally said, "Anne Lamott." She stared at me with great concern. The room was very quiet, except for Sam under the dress rack. Then she pursed her lips and slowly shook her head. "No," she said. "I guess not."
It took me about a week and a great deal of cheap chocolate to get over that. But then I remembered that whenever the world throws rose petals at you, which thrill and seduce the ego, beware. The cosmic banana peel is suddenly going to appear underfoot to make sure you don't take it all too seriously, that you don't fill up on junk food. (28.33-35)

One day your Instagram pics are getting hundreds of likes, and the next you post at the wrong time or something, and nobody even seems to bother to look. The cosmic banana peel is a useful idea to have when life goes like this. But it's not just about getting over it when people aren't celebrating your writing. It's also about realizing that real satisfaction comes from more than just quick approval. It comes from writing a darn good book.

All that I know about the relationship between publication and mental health was summed up in one line of the movie Cool Runnings, which is about the first Jamaican bobsled team. The coach is a four-hundred-pound man who had won a gold in Olympic bobsledding twenty years before but has been a complete loser ever since. The men on his team are desperate to win an Olympic medal, just as half the people in my classes are desperate to get published. But the coach says, "If you're not enough before the gold medal, you won't be enough with it." You may want to tape this to the wall near your desk. (28.36)

Nothing like '90s sports films to teach us about the literary life. If publishing is our main goal, we're bound to be disappointed. But if we really want to write, for ourselves or a few people we really respect, that's likely to produce a more real kind of satisfaction, even if we do get published.

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