Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 2, Chapter 16

By Anne Lamott

Part 2, Chapter 16


  • Okay, you may be thinking, first a chapter about morality, and now one about broccoli? Does Lamott think she's my mom? But Lamott is pretty snarky about the whole broccoli thing, and she actually has a reasonable point to make about writing, so let's try to bear with her for a bit. At least the chapter isn't called "Brussels Sprouts."
  • Lamott says that in a Mel Brooks comedy routine she knows, a psychiatrist tells his patient, "Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it" (16.1).
  • When Lamott tells this to students, they look at her as though things are headed downhill fast.
  • No kidding.
  • But Lamott thinks there is something useful in this comedy phrase for writing. She says when you're stuck as a writer and don't know something, like what a character would do, it's best to quiet down and listen for a small voice inside. That's what she means by "listen to your broccoli."
  • Lots of people got in trouble for listening to their intuitions as children and have never recovered, according to Lamott, and writers need to learn how to do it again. She says basically writers need the ability to listen to their intuitions of what's really going on and not shy away from that because it's inconvenient or unpleasant for someone.
  • Lamott also says you need your broccoli to write well, which seems to mean, basically, that you need intuition. Without that, you'll be stuck with only your rational mind to lead you, and you'll likely get up long before all the good things that might have happened in your writing day.
  • Lamott says the cure for this is to trust yourself, especially in a first draft. According to her, this may require stopping some of the noise your rational mind makes and coaxing the intuition a bit. Lamott gives some specifics on getting this to work.
  • Assume that what you're thinking and feeling is valuable, and be naïve enough to get it all written down. If your intuition keeps telling you that what you're doing sucks, you should think twice, just in case it's not really your intuition but your mother—or, you know, someone's respectable voice in your head telling you what to do.
  • Lamott thinks you really should let your intuition guide you when you're writing, even if it tells you to put a character in a purple sharkskin suit.
  • Writers who listen to respectable voices rather than intuitions about sharkskin suits put people to sleep.
  • How do you manage to listen to your intuition? According to Lamott, you have to find a metaphor for it. Broccoli works for her exactly because it's so ridiculous. Another friend imagines his intuition as an animal. Lamott says you need a metaphor that you're not trying to control. If you're lost in the woods, she says to let the horse find the way back home.
  • Basically, you have to hypnotize yourself into getting some work done—and then unhypnotize yourself enough to fix it. Lamott's friend Terry says the worst you can do is make a terrible mistake, so you might as well do something. Lamott thinks this is very true in writing. Try something out, and see if it works. If it doesn't, do something else.
  • Listen to your broccoli. If you've been working hard for a few hours and you're still not hearing anything from your broccoli, you can have lunch. Hopefully not broccoli.

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