Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 5, Chapter 29

By Anne Lamott

Part 5, Chapter 29

Part 5: The Last Class

The Last Class

  • You know how at the end of a class everything feels kind of momentous? Maybe the whole class is thrilled because they will never, ever have to take AP Calculus again. Or maybe everyone is sad because they will never, ever get to perform a psychedelic version of Little Shop of Horrors together in drama class again.
  • Either way, it kind of feels important. Lamott's whole last section is just one chapter, called "The Last Class." She tells us what she tells her students in the last class of her writing workshop, and it feels kind of momentous, too.
  • Lamott says there are a ton of things she wants to say in the last class. She reminds people to write about their childhoods, and she reminds them why she thinks it's important.
  • Lamott also says that growing into a writer is about becoming conscious. We think she probably means "able to pay attention to things around you" conscious, not "jolted awake by your horrible, blaring alarm clock" conscious. Lamott thinks a writer who is conscious and really cares about truth can turn on the lights for readers. The readers will be able to recognize the truths of their own lives in that writer's work, and they won't feel so alone.
  • Lamott says writers should have the courage to write honestly and directly about emotions. It will be scary to put real emotion at the heart of what you're doing, but it's worth risking vulnerability. She says this will make you a revolutionary because truth is always subversive.
  • This last class is kind of a grab bag of things Lamott wants her students to know. The next thing she says is that you can write from vengeful motives, as long as you're nice about it. She thinks you should write about bad things that happen to you, partly so you can process them and partly to get revenge.
  • This leads into a section on libel. Peter Parker could have used this one. If you're the kind of student who loves legal details, you can read more about libel in Shmoop's history of American journalism (scroll to the heading "Libel and Obscenity"). If you're not, here's how Lamott introduces it: "Libel is defamation by written or printed word. It is knowingly, maliciously saying things about people that cast them in a false or damaging light" (29.6). You can be sued if you libel someone.
  • Lamott basically says that if you want to write about someone real who did nasty things to you, you should change some details of the story. This serves two purposes: 1) It makes the person not recognizable enough to sue you. 2) If you change the right details, it makes the person completely uninterested in claiming that you might have been talking about him or her.
  • After libel, Lamott tackles the subject of feeling sorry for yourself. She says to try not to, as much as you can. If you want to write, do it. Then, she imagines artists as people who are building sand castles, people who think that maybe the symbols we make in the sand outlive the castles that get swept away by the ocean. Or maybe we'll be able to divert the ocean. Lamott says that's a great kind of person to be.
  • Lamott says she's almost done with the class at this point, and it's starting to feel like the farewells at summer camp while you're waiting for everything to be put on the bus.
  • Lamott says that by now, she thinks she's told her students every single thing she knows about writing. She gives a quick review. She says lots of her students want to be published, and lots of them are not going to get fame and fortune that way, but she still thinks they should write with everything they've got, hopefully every day for the rest of their lives.
  • Then, Lamott takes one final stab at convincing everyone that the writing really is its own reward. She dives into a really beautiful final few pages on this topic, in fact. She says that for some people, the literary life is as good as it gets. It's downright beautiful.
  • On top of that, you can become a great reader by becoming a better writer, and that's no small advantage in itself. It's like watching a great pitch or home run—it's even more impressive if you can do it yourself.
  • And sometimes, when you sit down to write, you have a knock-it-out-of-the-park great time.
  • Lamott has some fantastic writing days. Of course, she has a lot of bad writing days, too—but at least she has something to show for it. She thinks this might be a little bit like building the pyramids—at least you can see what you've done.
  • Lamott says our society seems to be dying. She says good writers can mirror society honestly and also hollow out a small place where people can be at home. This will require looking at your own angst, which is hard.
  • But Lamott says it's worth it, if you find your real place among writers and readers. If you describe something really true, you'll feel kind of noble, in a quiet sort of way.
  • Anyway, Lamott thinks that you've done something honorable by writing, even if only a few people read your work. You might even help a few of them. Your work will be sort of like a lighthouse; as it shines, it will point people in the right direction.
  • Basically, you can see your work as a chore or as an art. Lamott obviously thinks it's better to work as though it's an art and to have a good time doing it.
  • Maybe life is a little bit like a wedding. You can't just yell that you're at a wedding and everyone should have cake. You really need to make a world that people can enter into as a writer before they can see they're at a wedding. For Lamott, being able to do that requires discipline and trust and courage. She says we'll have to ask ourselves how alive we're willing to be.
  • Lamott says the best thing about being an artist is that your work is satisfying. You can pour your whole self into it.
  • Lamott says her students often look at her and ask why their writing matters.
  • Well, writing matters because it feeds the spirit and connects us to other people. Writing lets us see truths about life and learn to laugh about it. She says it keeps us from getting squashed by how absurd life is, and it lets us dance or clap along. In case it's all getting a little too Hallmark-y, Lamott pulls out a funky, grim image: she says writing is a bit like singing during a horrible storm on the ocean.
  • The book ends, "You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship" (29.37).
  • Maybe it's grim, but it's kind of hopeful, too.
  • That's Anne Lamott for you.

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