Study Guide

Bird by Bird Mortality/Immortality

By Anne Lamott


I wanted him to have a regular job where he put on a necktie and went off somewhere with the other fathers and sat in a little office and smoked. But the idea of spending entire days in someone else's office doing someone else's work did not suit my father's soul. I think it would have killed him. He did end up dying rather early, in his mid-fifties, but at least he had lived on his own terms. (Introduction.2)

Is a life lived on your own terms more important than a long life, according to Anne Lamott? Is there any way writing helps us achieve a life that's on our own terms?

Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. (1.33)

Books brings us the deepest thoughts of some of the deepest people who ever walked the earth. It's no wonder people find a lot of comfort in them, and it's no wonder that people can be super passionate about them. It really is a matter of life and death.

In general, though, there's no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we're going to die; what's important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this. (7.18)

For Lamott, novels are about hope, whatever their other themes might be. This seems like a philosophical point, but it might be a point about the nuts and bolts of writing, too. If there's nothing for your character to hope for, it's going to be hard to get anyone excited about how the plot unfolds. Suspense, surprisingly enough, comes from hope.

So if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren't. You may try to get them to do something because it would be convenient plotwise, or you might want to pigeonhole them so you can maintain the illusion of control. But with luck their tendrils will sneak out the sides of the box you've put them in, and you will finally have to admit that who they are isn't who you thought they were.
Dying people can teach us this most directly. Often the attributes that define them drop away—the hair, the shape, the skills, the cleverness. And then it turns out that the packaging is not who that person has really been all along. Without the package, another sort of beauty shines through. (11.7-8)

Lamott's idea suggests a practical exercise: even if your character isn't going to be anywhere near death in your novel, maybe it's worth asking what that character would be like if he or she did know death was around the corner. Even if you don't include any of that in your story or novel, you'll still understand that character better.

I remind myself nearly every day of something that a doctor told me six months before my friend Pammy died. This was a doctor who always gave me straight answers. When I called on this one particular night, I was hoping she could put a positive slant on some distressing developments. She couldn't, but she said something that changed my life. "Watch her carefully right now," she said, "because she's teaching you how to live."
I remind myself of this when I cannot get any work done: to live as if I am dying, because the truth is we are all terminal on this bus. To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence. Time is so full for people who are dying in a conscious way, full in the way that life is for children. They spend big round hours. (24.6-7)

Nothing like a few thoughts on death to get the writing day started. But seriously, the kind of work we'd do if we thought we were dying is probably the kind of work that really matters to us. It's those things that you should be including in your writing because it's those things that make your writing approach "truth."

Of course, not everyone loved my book. There were some terrible reviews. My personal favorite was from a newspaper in Santa Barbara, which said that our black sense of humor made us look like a New Age Addams family. "Here's your review from Santa Barbara," my editor wrote on a note enclosed with it, "where people never die." (25.5)

Sometimes a writer can see something more clearly even from bad reviews. This is a moment that shows how important it is for Lamott to write about the big questions death raises, and she gets that across partly through a quote about a reviewer who just didn't get what she was doing.

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)

Maybe writing is a way of teaching ourselves to appreciate something more. When we try to express something so far beyond us, maybe we grow just a little in our ability to experience it.

I gave her a finished copy four months before she died. It was another love letter, mostly to her and Sam, and for her daughter, Rebecca. Pammy knew there was something that was going to exist on paper after she was gone, something that was going to be, in a certain way, part of her immortality. (25.6)

There's a long tradition of writers talking about how writing gives them (and others) a certain kind of immortality. This idea might seem a little hollow—isn't it better not to die than to be famous just on paper? But maybe the idea is more encouraging if you know you're dying, and you're leaving behind a family member. Pammy's daughter can at least experience her mother in some way through Lamott's writing.

I got to write books about my father and my best friend, and they got to read them before they died. Can you imagine? I wrote for an audience of two whom I loved and respected, who loved and respected me. So I wrote for them as carefully and soulfully as I could—which is, needless to say, how I wish I could write all the time. (25.22)

Maybe an audience of two is more important than an audience of millions. Maybe the right small audience teaches you which kind of book to write. Who could be your small audience?

The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl's IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, "How soon until I start to die?" (27.10)

Maybe writers have to be able to give like this. The little boy in the story is literally willing to give up everything for his sister since he thinks he's going to die if he donates blood to her. Luckily, he's misunderstood what giving blood means, and he'll be just fine. But maybe Lamott is saying this is how writers have to be willing to give: if you put your whole self into the work, no matter what it costs you, maybe you'll give readers something significant about life.

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