Study Guide

Bird by Bird Literature and Writing

By Anne Lamott

Literature and Writing

Every morning, no matter how late he had been up, my father rose at 5:30, went to his study, wrote for a couple of hours, made us all breakfast, read the paper with my mother, and then went back to work for the rest of the morning. Many years passed before I realized that he did this by choice, for a living, and that he was not unemployed or mentally ill. (Introduction.2)

Anne Lamott's father is really into his writing. Lamott isn't just passing on her knowledge about writing here; she's also passing on her dad's knowledge about it. We're getting two books for the price of one.

Writing taught my father to pay attention; my father in turn taught other people to pay attention and then to write down their thoughts and observations. His students were the prisoners at San Quentin who took part in the creative-writing program. (Introduction.4)

Writing isn't just about having a lot to say; it's about learning to notice things. One of Anne Lamott's big points is that to be a good writer, it isn't enough to just write good sentences; it involves becoming a better, more honest person, too. You can only reach people, she says, if you write the truth—and that involves knowing yourself and your environment intensely.

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)

Writing for Lamott isn't just about her own stories; it's also about telling the stories of a community, whether that means that of her classmates, her family, or her friends.

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)

Making millions of dollars and having book-signing lines like those of J. K. Rowling sounds a lot jazzier than just sitting down and writing. But Lamott thinks the writing process itself really is the most satisfying thing—that's how you get to know yourself and others, and that's maybe how you get to connect to people.

Ever since I was a little kid, I've thought that there was something noble and mysterious about writing, about the people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers. All my life I've felt that there was something magical about people who could get into other people's minds and skin, who could take people like me out of ourselves and then take us back to ourselves. And you know what? I still do. (Introduction.49)

Speaking of J. K. Rowling, maybe writing class is just a little bit like Hogwarts. What kind of person do you have to become to imagine another world or another person's experience?

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)

These two answers aren't bad reasons for doing most things. If you find yourself good at something and you want to do it, maybe it's the job for you. For Lamott, that means writing, but it's not bad career advice, period. (On the other hand, choosing to write because you want to be famous is probably not the kind of motivation that's actually going to help you.)

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. (1.1)

The stakes sure are high in Lamott's view of writing. Nothing less than understanding human existence hangs in the balance. And that makes sense: one of the reasons we read other people's writing is to find out what they can tell us about ourselves and our own lives.

You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. (1.9)

Lamott knows that writing isn't just about spur-of-the-moment inspiration, though it's nice when that comes. Writing is also about a set of habits that gets your mind working on your project, even if it's working in the background; insight and inspiration sometimes happen when you're not even paying attention. Sometimes you may not feel like sitting down and working like that, but if you do, it'll pay off in the long run.

I also remember a story that I know I've told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." (2.5)

Don't lie: you're as bad about procrastinating as we are. Yeah, well, Anne Lamott has some good news: you don't have to write it all at once or do any huge project all at once. You do it bit by bit, bird by bird. It's way less scary that way, and it's also the way real writing and real projects—even the big ones you see only when they're already finished—are actually done.

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really s***ty first drafts. (3.3)

Yep. One of the dirty secrets of being a writer is that it's sometimes a real pain in the tuchus. But you're allowed to write something lousy; in fact, it's often the best way to get started. Just don't turn in that first draft to an agent hoping it'll sell as is.

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