So, what are the two most useful things Anne Lamott has to say about writing? Number 1 is short assignments.
Most of us are trying to write long stuff, Lamott says, and that's like trying to scale a glacier.
Lamott says that when she's trying to write something long and it's making her panic and feel like it's the end of her writing career, she stops. She breathes. She lets her mind wander. After she thinks about a ton of things that won't help her writing project, like whether she should get orthodontia or find a new boyfriend, she finally notices the 1-inch picture frame that she has left on her desk to remind her of short assignments.
What's so great about a 1-inch picture frame? It reminds Lamott she only has to tackle one short writing assignment at a time.
For now, Lamott just has to write one paragraph that pins the story down to her hometown in the late '50s. Or maybe she'll describe the main character the first time she appears, as she walks onto her porch.
Why are short assignments so helpful? Lamott gives us an E. L. Doctorow quote that explains. Doctorow said that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way" (2.4).
Lamott thinks this is pretty darn good advice about writing, and life, for that matter. You don't need to write everything at once, just a bit at a time.
Then, Lamott tells another story about writing short assignments. This is the story she named the book after, so we're betting it's pretty important.
Thirty years earlier, Lamott's then 10-year-old brother was trying to write a report on birds. He'd had three months to write it. It was due the next day. Naturally, her bro was panicking at the family cabin when their father put his arm around him and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird" (2.5).
Lamott says she tells this story again here, even though she's told it before, because it helps her students feel less overwhelmed. And writing students can feel really overwhelmed.
Then, Lamott says that a writer named Chesterton said that hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.
According to Lamott, writing can be pretty desperate, and not just if you've procrastinated on your elementary school report about birds.
Writing is about some of our deepest needs. We want to be visible to others, to be heard by them, to make sense of life, and other stuff like that. Writing can help us with all that, so it's easy to take ourselves too seriously when we're doing it.
Lamott ends the chapter by encouraging writers to focus on finishing one short assignment.