Study Guide

Bird by Bird Perseverance

By Anne Lamott


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. Sometimes I could not tell you exactly why, especially when it feels pointless and pitiful, like Sisyphus with cash-flow problems. Other days, though, my writing is like a person to me—the person who, after all these years, still makes sense to me. (Introduction.45)

Anne Lamott seems to be saying that your writing is almost like a great friend or a romantic interest. It has a life of its own, and somehow it's a deeply important part of your life, even if you're not getting rich, and even if it's not always easy.

I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up. (Introduction.34)

Patience may sound a little boring, the kind of thing your mom recommends when you're stuck in the car on a long trip. Lamott is saying the kind of patience you need as a writer is anything but sitting and waiting. It's the kind of patience that works hard and eventually starts revolutions.

We sat side by side on his couch for a while, in silence. Finally he said, "Listen. I want you to write that book you just described to me. You haven't done it here. Go off somewhere and write me a treatment, a plot treatment. Tell me chapter by chapter what you just told me in the last half hour, and I will get you the last of the advance." (12.17)

If your teacher has ever asked you to rewrite something you thought was finished, Lamott can sympathize. She rewrote one novel three times before her editor would take it. That's the kind of effort being a famous writer takes. What are you working on that you'd care enough to redo that many times? If there isn't anything yet, what do you think it could be?

The book came out the following autumn and has been the most successful of my novels. (12.19)

At least it paid off. This book is the one Lamott rewrote three times. Sometimes you have to step up to the plate an awful lot of times before you hit that home run. If it's hard to write, that sometimes means it's going to be great when you finally finish.

Whenever I tell this story to my students, they want to see the actual manuscript of the plot treatment. When I bring it in, they pore over it like it is some kind of Rosetta stone. It is typed on paper that has become crisp with age. There are annotations, smudges, and rings left by coffee and by red wine. It strikes me as being a brave document, rather like the little engine who could on the morning after. (12.20)

Our copy of The Little Engine That Could didn't say anything about the morning after. Writing really does take a ton of courage, over and over again. And a lot of triple espressos.

All four of them are excellent writers, but only one of them has been published at all, and that was just one article. But you know what? They love each other. They still look forward to their meetings after all these years. They are better writers and better people because of their work with each other. (21.24)

If most aspiring writers knew how long it takes to get published, they'd be too scared to try. But like Lamott's students, many writers really do get a lot out of a writer's group. It's like joining the Order of the Phoenix or something—and the Order of the Phoenix totally wins, even if it takes them three books.

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)

In one way, writers have it easy (not in lots of others, trust us). If you're a mechanical engineer or something, you actually have to know how your bridge is going to work. But if you're a writer, you can do something that eventually changes somebody's life without the slightest clue how it's going to work, at least at first. It's a bit like being Neville Longbottom: he's seriously a hero, even if he doesn't expect it of himself. Of course, it might take 10 years, but who's counting?

There are moments when I am writing when I think that if other people knew how I felt right now, they'd burn me at the stake for feeling so good, so full, so much intense pleasure. I pay through the nose for these moments, of course, with lots of torture and self-loathing and tedium, but when I am done for the day, I have something to show for it. When the ancient Egyptians finished building the pyramids, they had built the pyramids. Perhaps they are good role models: they thought they were working for God, so they worked with a sense of concentration and religious awe. (Also, my friend Carpenter tells me, they drank all day and took time off every few hours to oil each other. I believe that all my other writer friends do this, too, but they won't let me in on it.) (29.27)

It's nice to know that sometimes writing is more fun than a trip to Universal Studios. Plus, as Lamott says, at the end of the day, you've got something to show off. If you write a page a day for the next 10 years, you'll have 3,650 pages. That's longer than War and Peace plus Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. We added it up.

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)

Writing really is like being a Jedi knight or a king or queen of Narnia or something. So maybe you don't start out with a lightsaber or a sword from Father Christmas, but you do get to join a group of people who know what it is to tell the truth about things, and who keep doing it over years and years. Besides, you get to invent things like lightsabers.

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