Study Guide

Bird by Bird Introduction

By Anne Lamott

Introduction

  • This book doesn't have anything like a plot. It's a how-to guide, and it's the how-to stuff that gives the book its structure. We've focused here on giving you a quick guide to what Lamott covers in each chapter, with most of the emphasis on the writing takeaways.
  • Anne Lamott's family loved to read quietly after dinner—unless one of her father's friends was passing out at the dinner table.
  • Huh? Did we hear that correctly? Yep. Lamott's dad's friends sometimes did this because they were writers of a kindly but slightly crazy variety.
  • Lamott liked them but tended to get a little nervous when they passed out. Go figure.
  • Lamott's father was also a writer. He always got up at 5:30 a.m. and wrote for a few hours before making the family breakfast, then wrote some more until lunch. Sounds like father-of-the-year material to us.
  • Surprisingly, as a kid, Lamott kind of wanted her dad to have a boring office job.
  • We learn that Lamott's father died young. Super sad. But it sounds like he enjoyed his life as a writer—and short-order cook.
  • Lamott tells us some more about growing up with a writer. Along the way, she points out some advantages of being a writer. These include: 1) You have an excuse to go out and explore. 2) You also have a good reason to look closely at life.
  • Lamott says writing taught her father to pay attention. Then, her father taught other people to pay attention and to become writers themselves. Most of these other people were prisoners. Orange Is the New Black, anyone? Actually, this was way before Orange Is the New Black. Lamott's dad taught in a creative writing program at San Quentin prison.
  • Lamott also learned a lot about writing from her dad, mostly by watching. She learned the following lessons: 1) Write a little bit every day. 2) Read all the books and plays you can. Er, the good ones, anyway. 3) Read poetry. 4) Don't be afraid to make mistakes.
  • There's really just one drawback. Eventually you have to do the darn writing yourself. Young Anne and the prisoners see that as a bit of a pain.
  • Lamott thinks it's easier to write as a child, but it's always pretty darn hard. Writers, like students, complain about this a lot.
  • Lamott also tells us a bit about herself as a child, when she was learning to write from her dad. She was nervous—like super nervous. And the mean girls in the neighborhood used to tease her about looking weird.
  • Lamott taught herself to be funny in self-defense, and then she started to write.
  • In fact, Anne wrote an epically long poem about John Glenn—in second grade. And the teacher read it to the class. It even won an award.
  • The other second graders were impressed.
  • Lamott enjoyed this experience.
  • Lamott eventually realized she wanted to be a writer like her dad. So much for a boring office job.
  • Anne was a bit worried about making enough money, though. A legit concern—Shmoop has some info on money and writers right on over here.
  • Many of Lamott's dad's writer friends seemed to have some trouble paying the bills—not to mention staying away from their substances of choice.
  • Anne found this a little weird because her other friends had parents who were things like lawyers and doctors. They didn't have as much trouble paying the bills nor did they spend their afternoons smoking pot.
  • Just to be clear, Lamott seems to like her dad a lot, and he seems to make money and not be an alcoholic. But Lamott worries about his pals.
  • Lamott really wants to feel like she belongs, but she lives in a boring middle-class neighborhood.
  • Even in middle school, Lamott has trouble fitting in because she doesn't look like everybody else. But she does manage to be funny, and that helps her fit in more.
  • It turns out that being a writer helps Anne more with fitting in than you might think. She writes something and shows it to a teacher, and then it gets put into a real textbook. Her parents and teachers are seriously impressed.
  • Even a few of the popular kids are impressed.
  • Lamott gets invited to more parties.
  • Lamott has a popular friend over for a sleepover one time, and Lamott's dad has just received a copy of his new novel. The popular friend thinks it's the coolest thing ever to have a writer for a dad.
  • Lamott starts reading a bit of the novel aloud to her friend later. Turns out the part she chooses is about sex. It's pretty embarrassing to Lamott.
  • Well, you can't win 'em all.
  • Then, something weird happens: Lamott's dad writes a magazine article that describes their community as "a lousy place to raise kids." (This is really, actually the title.) In it, he complains that the community is full of materialistic people who are going slightly crazy in their environment of shallowness.
  • Lamott thinks this essay is going to be hopelessly embarrassing, too. She plays tennis with a lot of these people. She worries they'll be upset.
  • Turns out, much of the community loves the article. Her brother's teachers hand it out as required reading, and his class is impressed. Some of the people at the tennis club are a little miffed, but people also stop her father on the street and gush their thanks. That probably doesn't happen to the kids with lawyer parents.
  • By high school, Anne is writing a lot. This ends up improving her street cred with the other high schoolers. Actually, it's not the writing itself that helps; it's the fact that she's learning to tell stories well. When her friends want someone to tell the story of some funny or outrageous thing that happened, they turn to her. If they'd had Facebook back then, Anne's posts would be getting all the likes.
  • Anne says her father was like this, too, able to take small events and bring out what was funny or significant or important about them.
  • Lamott thinks about how her father probably had a similar childhood to hers. He probably enjoyed being alone or having serious conversations with grownups. She says this kind of person often becomes either a writer or a career criminal. Did we mention that Lamott can be snarky?
  • Anne Lamott also likes to read. A lot.
  • Anyhow, Lamott feels different from her peers as a child and young adult, and she thinks being different and being a writer often go together. Around her junior year of high school, she decides that she can actually do it: she can be a writer.
  • Then, Anne writes some terrible, terrible stories.
  • We're not being mean. That's how Anne herself describes it (Introduction.22). Nice to know that even famous writers don't always get it right on the first try.
  • Scene switch.
  • Now, we're in Lamott's college days, and college is just great for her. The books she reads in her classes make her feel like she can actually be part of a community, and so do her new friends, who sound strange in a cool way. Lamott desperately wants to be intellectual, political, and artistic. Her reading and her new friends seem to be helping with that—even if she has to give up on her socialist meetings after five weeks because she gets bored on the long bus ride.
  • College goes on pretty well for a while. Lamott discovers all sorts of cool books, she starts writing for the school newspaper, and she gets good grades in English, if not in everything.
  • But Lamott really wants to be known as a writer more widely, not just in her college newspaper. So, when she's 19, she drops out of college.
  • Shmoop career aside: dropping out of college seems to have worked for Lamott, eventually. She is pretty famous these days, and she seems happy in a neurotic writer kind of way. But she complains a lot about money in the book, so we can't recommend the dropout course if your goal is to become a billionaire.
  • Lamott moves back to San Francisco, where she hopes to become a famous writer. Lamott says she became a famous Kelly girl instead. What's that? It sounds vaguely exciting and scandalous, but it turns out it's an old-fashioned name for doing office work through a temp agency.
  • Eventually, Lamott gets a job as a clerk-typist with a big firm that does engineering and construction. Yawn. She's in the nuclear quality-assurance department, which sounds slightly more interesting. But Lamott says it was extremely boring. She also claims to have thrown out a lot of the paperwork, which gave her time to write short stories.
  • Memoir writers sometimes exaggerate. We here at Shmoop kind of hope this is one of those times. Especially since our offices are near San Francisco.
  • Lamott's dad says to write every day.
  • Lamott writes at work and every night after work. She sits in coffeehouses and writes and drinks a lot of wine because she thinks that's what writers do. She figures it works for her father and his friends. (We do not recommend this strategy, btw.)
  • Lamott also says her dad's writer friends had started to commit suicide by this point in her life. This is genuinely tragic. Lamott doesn't spend much time on it here, but it must have been a very hard moment in her father's life, and obviously it was disturbing for Lamott as well. It's not easy being a writer, folks.
  • Lamott moves to the town of Bolinas, where her father and younger brother are living. Her mother isn't living with them because her parents split up the year before.
  • Lamott cleans and teaches tennis to make money and keeps writing. What is she writing? She does some other stuff, but mostly she writes what she considers to be her great work at the time. It's a short story named "Arnold."
  • "Arnold" is about a bald psychiatrist with a beard who runs into "a slightly depressed young female writer and her slightly depressed younger brother" (Introduction.29). Sound like anyone we know?
  • Arnold gives the writer and her brother psychological advice. Then, he waddles around quacking like a duck to make them laugh.
  • If you're thinking this isn't going to sell like The Hunger Games, Lamott agrees. She says, "It was a terrible story" (Introduction.30).
  • Lamott is lucky in that her father already has a literary agent who is willing to read Anne's stories. The agent is named Elizabeth McKee. Lamott sends McKee new versions of "Arnold" every few months.
  • McKee is very nice about this, writing back kind notes.
  • Lamott talks about writing for several years and longing to be published. Her father believes in her writing, which is a big reason she doesn't give up.
  • Then, something really bad happens. When Lamott is 23, her father gets brain cancer. Anne and her brothers are brokenhearted. But her dad tells her she should write about it: he plans to write his version of events, and he wants her to write her own. Lamott agrees to this idea, even though she's devastated.
  • Lamott's dad turns out to be too ill to write, but Anne writes five chapters, and her dad loves them. He tells her to send them to Elizabeth McKee, the agent who's been reading "Arnold" all this time.
  • Lamott says she thinks McKee must have been thrilled to receive anything besides "Arnold."
  • Elizabeth McKee does her agent thing, and Viking agrees to publish Anne's book. Sadly, her father dies about a year before the book is published, but at least Anne had the chance to write about him, and he got to read early versions. That's gotta be worth a lot, and it seems like it is to Lamott.
  • Lamott also winds up getting published, although that seems less important to her than writing for her dad.
  • Nevertheless, Lamott has been hoping to get published for a long time, so it's nice, even though not losing her dad would have been nicer.
  • And at least publishing should solve most of Lamott's other problems, right?
  • Turns out publishing doesn't entirely live up to Anne's expectations. It's actually pretty tense waiting for the book to be published, and a few of the early reviewers aren't very nice.
  • When the book finally does get published, it gets some wonderful reviews. It also gets some awful ones. Lamott does some writer events like interviews and book signings.
  • But basically, publishing doesn't seem as life-changing as Lamott expected it would be. Nobody says her novel is the best thing since Moby-Dick, and she isn't rich enough to retire on the spot. Wasn't publishing supposed to make that sort of thing happen?
  • Apparently not—and publishing since has been a similar experience. Even when her fifth book comes out, Lamott doesn't get ridiculously rich, and the reviews don't say she's written the greatest American novel ever.
  • Kind of disappointing, huh?
  • But even if publishing hasn't lived up to her expectations, Lamott seems really happy to be a writer. She says she warns people that publication isn't everything you'd hope, but writing is. Even if you have to make yourself do it, the actual writing is the best part.
  • Lamott describes how great writing has been for her. It feels like being in love with someone after years and years of knowing that person; it's like magic.
  • Now, Lamott teaches writing. She wasn't really trying to, but someone offered her a job doing it about a decade before she wrote Bird by Bird, and she just kept doing it.
  • Lamott talks a bit about why she writes, complete with funny stories about why famous writers wrote, not to mention an inspiring aside about Chariots of Fire. Cue that early '80s epic synth theme, folks.
  • Basically, Lamott says people write because they want to or because they're good at it. She thinks she got these descriptions from poet John Ashbery (who wanted to) and writer Flannery O'Connor (who was good at it). Another fun thing about Lamott—if she's not absolutely sure she's right, she tells you a good line anyway and admits she's not certain who said it.
  • Anyway, Lamott writes because she wants to and she's good at it, and she welcomes students who are good at it—but also students who just want to do it, whatever their level of talent. As long as somebody wants to give writing a try, Lamott is happy to have that person in her class.
  • Want to know what a famous writer says in this sort of a class? We're in luck because Lamott is about to tell us just that.
  • Lamott tells students they'll want to be instantly good, and lots of people aren't. On the bright side, there's a reasonable chance they might get to be good writers someday if they just keep practicing. Who knew that being a New York Times bestselling author was so much like learning to play the tuba?
  • Lamott tells her students a lot of other things about life as a writer, including the idea that someday they might like the act of writing itself and not just the idea that they might produce a finished work.
  • Lamott also warns students that it's hard to get published, and it may not fill your bank account or give you joy and peace even if you do. She says it's more likely to bring ruin, financial problems, and other things you don't want.
  • Then, Lamott says she thinks people should write, anyway.
  • Basically, writing and publication aren't going to make your life everything you ever wanted it to be. Lamott has a lot of writer friends, and they don't look happy and contented.
  • Lamott's students don't want to hear this, apparently. (No kidding.) She says they also don't want to hear that it took her four published books to stop being a starving artist, nor do they want to hear other unpleasant things about life as a writer.
  • But Lamott spills it, anyway. On the good side, she also says writing makes her writer friends feel more alive and satisfied when they are writing, and she wants her students to feel that, too.
  • Here's some more good news: the rest of this book is basically what Lamott tells her students over all the weeks of her class. She's going to tell us almost everything she knows about writing. Not a bad deal. When was the last time a famous author invited you to hang out and hear everything she knows about writing?

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