Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 1, Chapter 1

By Anne Lamott

Part 1, Chapter 1

Part One: Writing

Getting Started

  • Lamott thinks good writing is about telling the truth. Not just the "okay, I may possibly have eaten my brother's last Halloween Snickers bar, but I'm sure he didn't want it, anyway" kind of truth. Truth like who are we as human beings is more what Lamott has in mind.
  • It turns out that when you try and tell this kind of truth for a couple days straight while sitting at your desk and staring at your laptop, it's not quite as much fun as you might expect. Lamott's students usually figure this out by the second class and give her skeptical looks.
  • These writing students have a problem that may sound familiar to your average high school student faced with a paper to write: they don't know where to start.
  • Where should somebody start? Not that we here at Shmoop know any procrastinating writers who might need to know that. We're purely interested in an abstract sort of support-the-arts kind of way.
  • Lamott thinks you might as well start with your childhood. Flannery O'Connor thought that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of their lives. This may not be the moment to mention that Flannery O'Connor died when she was 39…but hey, she's still famous, so this advice worked for her.
  • Anyhow, Lamott also tells her readers to start with childhood. This can be a little overwhelming since a lot happens in your average childhood. But professional writers get overwhelmed with too much material, too; when Lamott was writing restaurant reviews, for example, her head was so full of different meals and restaurants that she froze whenever someone asked for a recommendation. It got better if someone could narrow it down to a particular kind of food, like Indian cuisine.
  • To help writers narrow it down and get something actually started, Lamott suggests jotting down everything you remember from your first few years of school. It doesn't even matter if what someone writes at this stage is good because no one will see this. She gives lots of helpful questions writers can make use of to get rolling.
  • If you don't get anything good by writing about school, Lamott says you can go on to writing about holidays or big events you remember from childhood. She gives a similarly useful list of questions and suggestions for this.
  • What if your childhood was less than ideal, and your relatives don't want you to talk about it? Lamott says to write it down, anyway, and figure out what to do about that problem later.
  • Lamott's students seem to want more detail than this. She says they ask her how you actually write all that stuff. She says to sit down.
  • This world-famous writer stuff doesn't sound too hard so far.
  • Lamott adds that we might want to sit down at about the same time every day. That's a little harder, but Lamott thinks it will pay off.
  • Lamott describes the agonizing process of sitting there trying to start writing, and this really does sound hard.
  • Eventually, however, the sitting there will pay off, and the writer will actually start writing sentences. That's a relief.
  • Lamott says just willing this to happen won't do it; writers have to show persistence and faith, and they have to do hard work. Then, she says something like "just do it." Nike would be proud.
  • Lamott wishes she had a silver bullet that made writing easy, but she doesn't. It's the same for almost everyone she knows. But the good news is that eventually, for most people, something will start coming.
  • Lamott admits that once she does get something written, she usually rereads it and spends the rest of the day worrying that the world will figure out how bad her first drafts are. She also spends quite a while talking about all the awful feelings that can result after this.
  • But hey, it's actually kind of comforting. If professional writers feel bummed like this and still manage to sell books and get famous, maybe getting through your next paper deadline won't be that awful. And maybe your indie singer-songwriter lyrics will get noticed, too.
  • Lamott talks about how cool it is when you finally hit inspiration and words just come pouring out.
  • Lamott's students apparently give her funny looks when she says this kind of thing. Then, they ask her how to find an agent.
  • Lamott explains that when you are ready, you can go through books that list agents and start asking them to look at your work. If you're really good and really persistent, eventually an agent will agree to represent your work.
  • But Lamott says in the meantime, it's best to concentrate on actually becoming a better writer. If you're a better writer, you'll be a better reader, and that's the real payoff for learning to write.
  • Lamott's students don't believe any of this, apparently. They really want to find agents and get published, and sometimes at about this point in the class they also want a refund.
  • The students also want to know why sometimes they feel crazy when they're writing, such as when they're producing bad sentences even if people have told them they're good writers and when that experience makes them feel paranoid and mentally ill.
  • Lamott says you can get paralyzed by feelings like these or you can use them as great writing material. She recommends using them as material, and she quotes a poem by someone else that does this well.
  • Apparently, Lamott's students are rarely impressed by the poem. Usually, they stare at her for a while, until finally one of them raises a hand and asks if you really need an agent or if you can just send your manuscript to a publisher directly.
  • Lamott pauses and says you really need an agent.
  • The key problem for many of Lamott's students at this point in the class is that they really want to be published, maybe even more than they want to write.
  • Lamott says publishing won't actually give you what you want. Writing can do a lot of things for you: help you soften, pay attention, wake up to life. But publishing won't do any of those things.
  • Lamott tells a funny story about her very young son trying to open a door, and she says that publication won't open the doors you need opened. Really learning to write will open doors, though, in spite of all the moments when you'll feel bored or defeated.
  • Lamott says that if what you long for is to write, there are good reasons to do it and ways to get it done.
  • The students ask what the good reasons are.
  • Lamott says that for some people, books are one of the most important things in life. She thinks it's a miracle that ink on paper can introduce you to worlds, help you understand who you are, introduce you to community, and more.
  • Lamott asks students if they too are grateful for books, and most of them are. They love good writing and want to become good writers. Apparently, this usually convinces them to stay in the class for a while longer. Even if publishers aren't yet fighting squirt-gun duels over their manuscripts.
  • Lamott says she'll next get on to the two most useful things she can say about writing.
  • Cliffhanger.

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