Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 1, Chapter 11

By Anne Lamott

Part 1, Chapter 11

False Starts

  • Professional writers are like the Olympic athletes of language, so of course they always know what they're doing, right?
  • Nope.
  • Sometimes, Lamott thinks she knows where a story or a character is going, and she turns out to be dead wrong. Believe it or not, this happens to a lot to writers, so Lamott gives us a brief guide to getting through it in this chapter.
  • Lamott learned a lot about this by visiting a nursing home. The first time she visited, she thought she knew who the residents were. She says if she'd written about it, she would have been confident—and also completely wrong.
  • Now that she's been going to the nursing home for four years, Lamott sees all sorts of things she missed at first, like how each person there claps along with music.
  • Lamott says if she'd written about this experience right away, she would have emphasized smells and confusion and written about the sense of waste she feels (maybe because the people there have lost so much?). But now, she says, she's learned something from an image a medieval monk used: Brother Lawrence said that everyone is like a tree in winter, without growth or leaves, but loved unconditionally by God.
  • Lamott says, "When you write about your characters, we want to know all about their leaves and colors and growth. But we also want to know who they are when stripped of the surface show. 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" (11.7).
  • This is something we can learn most directly from dying people. When someone is dying, often the external attributes of that person drop away. Then, we realize that the package of traits we thought was the person isn't actually who that person is; instead, we see something beautiful that was hidden.
  • So there you have it—hang out with dying people if you want to be good at writing characters. Literary writing, folks. Tons of fun.

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