Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 2, Chapter 15

By Anne Lamott

Part 2, Chapter 15

The Moral Point of View

  • Harry Potter is a great story, and one of the things that makes us root for Harry is that he's fighting against prejudice and totalitarianism. Maybe it's something like this that Lamott has in mind when she says that authors need to be writing with something at the center, a core set of beliefs they really care about.
  • Lamott says that the things we really believe in will probably feel like they're true in all times and places. But she also says those aren't the kinds of truths you can just stick on the page and be done with. The whole book will have to be about these truths, and it will have to be layered and complex. That's because these kinds of truths are something beyond our ordinary understanding: "We are dealing with the ineffable here—we're out there somewhere between the known and the unknown, trying to reel in both for a closer look. This is why it may take a whole book" (15.3).
  • Yeah, that's different from having an obvious moral or boiling your story down to a message. But Lamott says we will want to communicate the things we're deeply certain are right.
  • Early on, writers want to show off their wit and insight, but eventually they move more toward wanting the characters to act out the drama of humanity. That kind of text may not always be full of wit, but a lot of it will be about showing who human beings can be in an ethical way.
  • Okay, so this may sound a lot like philosophy class or a lecture. Is that really how we want to write? Lamott realizes readers may be thinking this because she says the word "moral" has bad associations for a lot of people. But she says we have to get over that; she's talking about letting our deepest beliefs drive our writing, not about sticking in a moral or turning a novel into a philosophy textbook.
  • According to Lamott, we like certain characters because they're actually good or decent in some way. We want Spider-Man to succeed because Peter Parker is a pretty nice guy, and we root for Dumbledore because for all his flaws he wants to protect other people.
  • Even as we care about the good side, though, Lamott says we may also be fascinated by the bad guys. In fact, they're sometimes more interesting. But at the end of the day, Lamott thinks we really all want to see some fairly normal person who has both kindness and selfishness come through and do something courageous and good. We want Harry to be willing to risk his own life to rescue his friends, for example.
  • Writers can only really pull that off if they actually believe in what they're writing about, according to Lamott. If J. K. Rowling didn't actually believe in freedom or a fair society, for instance, she wouldn't be able to make Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows convincing. Lamott explores how this works out in Samuel Beckett's plays.
  • But writers do need something besides a moral philosophy to make great novels. Lamott deeply admires the philosophy of the 14th Dalai Lama, who says, "My true religion is kindness" (15.10), but she says your agent will want you to do a little more embroidering on that one sentence if you're hoping to get a whole novel out of it.
  • Basically, Lamott explains, "So a moral position is not a message. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you" (15.11). Lamott thinks we're all in trouble and need to learn how to take care of each other, and if writers can shed a little light on this and make people laugh into the bargain, that's worth a lot.
  • So, according to Lamott, we should write about the things that are most important to us. She gives a short list of things most people are interested in: love, death, sex, survival. She says some people are also interested in God and ecology.
  • We also get a gentle warning: if what we happen to care most passionately about is cappuccino enemas (no, we are not making this up—that's what Lamott actually says), then you should give that a miss and talk about freedom and human rights instead.
  • Basically, Lamott thinks writers should tell the truth and fight for freedom in whatever way matters most to them.

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