Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 3, Chapter 19

By Anne Lamott

Part 3, Chapter 19

Part Three: Help Along the Way

Index Cards

  • This chapter is about not forgetting crucial things, like the scene that would make the perfect climax to a novel. Or the quirky characters you met at summer camp who could be a whole novel in and of themselves.
  • Lamott's recommendations are pretty basic: index cards and lists. Gee, do we need to buy a book by a bestselling writer to figure this out? Sounds like what our English teacher recommends for free.
  • But Lamott does have some useful tips and good stories about index cards, believe it or not.
  • Once you start thinking like a writer, you see practically everything as material. It helps to have a lot of index cards and pens around. That way you can jot everything down before you forget it.
  • If you can remember everything without notes, Lamott says that's great, and you don't need index cards. But she also says it's not cheating to take notes. If your brain is naturally disorganized, that doesn't make you a bad writer; you're just a creative type who may need to take notes sometimes.
  • Lamott even gives us permission to be disorganized about notes. She says she's inefficient and disorganized about her index cards, but they still help her; writing something down improves her chances of remembering it. Sometimes she keeps a stack of index cards about a project piled on her desk, and these cards give her ideas when she's totally stuck.
  • Lamott tells a story about one index card she's had for six or seven years. It says, "The lemonade-making thing" (19.22). Those scribbled words remind her of a funny and poignant story from 25 years ago that she thought of because she smelled lemon perfume when a bicyclist wearing some pedaled past her. She may or may not write about this (other than in this book), but the index card is helping her remember it.
  • Index cards are also great for jotting down good lines or specific wordings that come to you at inconvenient moments, according to Lamott.
  • Lots of Lamott's index cards wind up in the trash, either because she's used the line in her writing or because she's not as impressed with it later.
  • But lots of these are all around the house. Lamott knows where some of them are—and doesn't know where others are. Probably her son will have to throw out a lot of them when she dies, and probably he won't have any idea what some of them mean. Others, though, have stories that mean a lot to her and probably will to her son, and they won't be forgotten because of the index cards. She gives a few examples.
  • All in all, the advice in this chapter is kind of a relief: it's fine to be disorganized and forgetful as a writer, and you might be able to remember a few things by using index cards. It's not exactly Super Study Skills for the Advanced Novelist, but it's a lot more fun.

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