Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 4, Chapter 27

By Anne Lamott

Part 4, Chapter 27


  • Giving might be another reason to write, besides the fame and glory Lamott isn't so sure we're going to get.
  • Like a great band covering a hit by another great group, Lamott starts off this chapter by talking about Annie Dillard. Dillard is also an amazing writer, so her advice is likely to be solid. Here's what Lamott says: "Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more" (27.1).
  • This is a pretty radical thing to say, according to Lamott. She says she's always trying to find loopholes in it. It's probably a bit like telling your 4-year-old brother or sister that sharing will make them happier than getting new toys. It may be true in some grown-up version of the world, but the average 4-year-old isn't sold on it.
  • But Lamott also says that she keeps finding Dillard's advice to be true, even though it doesn't seem very likely.
  • Lamott says writing is full of giving. It's practically like working for NBA Cares. Without so many butterfly-shaped basketballs.
  • Lamott says writing is also a lot like being the single parent of a 3-year-old with strong opinions. The kid may love you one minute and pull your hair out the next 'cause that's just what 3-year-olds do.
  • Lamott says your kids and your books somehow belong to you, and you have to take care of them because you helped them come into existence.
  • The payoff is that we'll stop being stuck inside ourselves and start learning to live unselfishly for someone else. Okay, it doesn't sound quite as glamorous as signing autographs for Chris Hemsworth because he's starring in the film version of your book, but still, Lamott sees it as a genuine reason to write, and she is a bestselling author.
  • Assuming we buy this reason for writing, which sounds super admirable if not super glamorous, what might help us be giving in our writing? Lamott says there are two things:
  • 1) The first thing is to imagine everyone we meet as a patient in a hospital emergency room. People in the ER probably have gaping wounds and serious confusion, and that's how Lamott sees life in general. It's easier to give to people in an ER. And sometimes just the right line in a book gives people a sense of connection and community, even if they do need to get three separate casts for their injuries. Lamott wants to give them that. The connection, that is, not the injuries.
  • 2) The second thing is to think of the gifts other writers have given, and write as if for them.
  • Maybe there's a writer who's given you something amazing. Whether it's Harry Potter or Divergent or The Dark Knight (hey, film scripts have writers, too), there's probably some world or character or something that has made your life way better.
  • If you think of one of these writers who's given you a gift while writing, it's much easier to write the best thing you can. Lamott says this feels like hosting an amazing party, being the writer who can give an incredible book to others.
  • Lamott tells us a story about what it means to be giving, and she says that basically writers have to be sophisticated and na├»ve at the same time. She says humans are supposed to be open to the world instead of closed off, and that a good writer can help people be courageous enough to do that.
  • Lamott also says you don't have to be an optimist to write in a way that helps other people be open to the world. No kidding. She has a priest friend who says he's a cheerful pessimist, and that's good enough.
  • We then get a long joke about a gorilla.
  • The point is that writers can help other people be courageous and open, and it takes a heck of a lot of courage and giving for a writer to be able to do that. But it's worth it.

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