Study Guide

Bird by Bird Identity

By Anne Lamott


I started writing a lot in high school: journals, impassioned antiwar pieces, parodies of the writers I loved. And I began to notice something important. The other kids always wanted me to tell them stories of what had happened, even—or especially—when they had been there. Parties that got away from us, blowups in the classroom or on the school yard, scenes involving their parents that we had witnessed—I could make the story happen. I could make it vivid and funny, and even exaggerate some of it so that the event became almost mythical, and the people involved seemed larger, and there was a sense of larger significance, of meaning. (Introduction.19)

That stereotype of the solitary writer? Lamott's not into it. In fact, she finds that writing improves her social life when she's a kid, at least a little bit. That's because her classmates start to look to her to make their stories come alive and show why they matter. Is that the role or identity of the writer in society more generally?

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)

Okay, so being a writer isn't all winning Pulitzers and being photographed. Writing itself can be stressful, even harrowing (think about your last midterm essay), and that's why lots of writers also describe the unglamorous parts of writing as things that shape of their identity.

But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It's like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. (Introduction.44)

Maybe part of being a writer is finding that the parts of the career that shape your identity change. You might start out wanting New York Times bestseller recognition or tons of money, but gradually you find that you're more interested in the deeper things about writing—what it shows you about yourself and your communities, or the insight it gives you.

You are going to have to give and give and give, or there's no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver. (27.2)

Yeah, writing practically sounds like giving blood to the Red Cross. But Lamott has a serious point. In a way, you're giving away something of yourself when you write; that's what makes other people want to read it. Okay, we sound a bit like Hallmark here, but it's kind of true, too.

Interviewers ask famous writers why they write, and it was (if I remember correctly) the poet John Ashbery who answered, "Because I want to." Flannery O'Connor answered, "Because I'm good at it," and when the occasional interviewer asks me, I quote them both. Then I add that other than writing, I am completely unemployable. But really, secretly, when I'm not being smart-alecky, it's because I want to and I'm good at it. (Introduction.52)

Maybe this isn't a bad test for why you should write. Do you want to? Are you good at it? Those may be the best reasons. "I want to be famous" and "I want to make moolah" probably won't get you too far.

I always mention a scene from the movie Chariots of Fire in which, as I remember it, the Scottish runner, Eric Liddell, who is the hero, is walking along with his missionary sister on a gorgeous heathery hillside in Scotland. She is nagging him to give up training for the Olympics and to get back to doing his missionary work at their church's mission in China. And he replies that he wants to go to China because he feels it is God's will for him, but that first he is going to train with all of his heart, because God also made him very, very fast. So God made some of us fast in this area of working with words, and he gave us the gift of loving to read with the same kind of passion with which we love nature. (Introduction.52-53)

This is a great story for Lamott to tell here because on the one hand, it's about talent and duty, but on the other, it's also about what fills someone with joy. Writing is about those things, too.

My students at the writing workshops have this gift of loving to read, and some of them are really fast, really good with words, and some of them aren't really fast and don't write all that well, but they still love good writing, and they just want to write. And I say, "Hey! That is good enough for me. Come on down." (Introduction.53)

In spite of that cool story about Olympic athletes in the last quote, Lamott thinks you can write even if you aren't naturally good at it. Seriously, lots of published authors didn't actually get good until they'd been going for years. We're betting it's hard to get into the Olympics if someone doesn't think you're naturally good at it, but it turns out that you can be a published writer with just hard work and dedication. Well, you also have to do the hard work of being an open-minded, compassionate person, but why wouldn't you want to do that, too?

Don't underestimate this gift of finding a place in the writing world: if you really work at describing creatively on paper the truth as you understand it, as you have experienced it, with the people or material who are in you, who are asking that you help them get written, you will come to a secret feeling of honor. (29.30)

Another great thing about writing is that you get to do something noble even if you haven't, say, thrown a tiny but dangerous magic ring into the right volcano or defeated Lex Luthor. But whatever—the pen is mightier than the sword, after all.

And who knows? 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)

It's kind of a strange thought that you might be able to write something that will help someone you've never met, at some time in the future, in some way you can't even imagine. But we think Lamott is right about this. By writing, you might even save a life—or at least get someone through a break-up or something.

And the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else's voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else's clothes. You cannot write out of someone else's big dark place; you can only write out of your own. Sometimes wearing someone else's style is very comforting, warm and pretty and bright, and it can loosen you up, tune you into the joys of language and rhythm and concern. But what you say will be an abstraction because it will not have sprung from direct experience: when you try to capture the truth of your experience in some other person's voice or on that person's terms, you are removing yourself one step further from what you have seen and what you know. (26.10)

It's really true: finding something written from a person's actual experience is like the difference between seeing an actor dressed up for a film and seeing an actor in their own clothes. A good actor can be pretty convincing in a costume, but you don't know the real person till you've seen them as they usually are. Especially if they're say, wearing the Bane suit.

Truth, or reality, or whatever you want to call it is the bedrock of life. A black man at my church who is nearing one hundred thundered last Sunday, "God is your home," and I pass this on mostly because all of the interesting characters I've ever worked with—including myself—have had at their center a feeling of otherness, of homesickness. And it's wonderful to watch someone finally open that forbidden door that has kept him or her away. What gets exposed is not people's baseness but their humanity. It turns out that the truth, or reality, is our home. (26.11)

If Lamott is right here, then in a way writers have the task of trying to point us home. When they tell the truth as well as they can, writers are working out their own small map for others to follow home.

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