Study Guide

Bird by Bird Themes

By Anne Lamott

  • Literature and Writing

    We know you're shocked: Bird by Bird, a book subtitled "Some Instructions on Writing and Life," is about writing. So, just like it says on the cover, Anne Lamott has a lot to say about writing and reading, and how they both intertwine with life—especially her life, which includes a professional writer father who inspires her to become a writer herself. But Lamott is also big on the idea that writing and reading aren't just for professionals—they're for anyone who cares about knowing him- or herself better or exploring the world, and they can make anyone's life richer, even if that person isn't a published author.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. What does writing do for us? Is it all about ending up as rich as Stephenie Meyer, or is there some other role writing plays in our lives?
    2. What role does community play in writing? Is the writer best as a super solitary type, or do the best writers reach out to others?
    3. How do writers actually get writing done? Does it pour out in mad fits of inspiration, or does it involve lots of work, day after day?

    Chew on This

    For Lamott, writing involves community.

    Writing is a lot more important to Lamott than publishing because writing itself is what lets the writer grow and understand the world better.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    If you don't have hope, skip being a writer because a lot of the time, it's the only thing you're going to have. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott lays it all out about how as a writer, your dreams and plans rarely come true, at least in the way you expected they would. You might never get published. You might spend months or years on a novel and still have it not come together until you do your third rewrite. You'll probably be financially strapped forever, even if you do manage more or less to support yourself. But hey—life itself is kind of like that. Stuff happens. The only thing that'll get you through is a little gumption and a lot of hope.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. What does Lamott mean when she uses the word "hope"?
    2. Why is hope especially important in the writing process, in Lamott's view?
    3. What helps writers—or anyone—find hope? Does Bird by Bird give us any clues about that?

    Chew on This

    For Lamott, hope isn't a passive wish for something to happen; it's an active way of working toward that goal.

    Bird by Bird shows us that we often hope for the wrong things (like fame or publication) but we can learn to hope for better things (like growth or finding out how much we enjoy writing in and of itself).

  • Community

    So, genius writers lock themselves up in a library and refuse to talk to others while inspiration rushes through them as fast as a Ferrari, right? Yeah, no. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott is all about showing how community has helped her write, whether it's her father getting her started as a writer, her friends or her church or her son giving her ideas and encouragement, or her editors or early readers offering helpful feedback. For her, being a writer is almost like being in a band: she can't do what she's trying to do without other people.

    Questions About Community

    1. Which chapters in the book show Lamott's relationship to community? What specific things does community do for her as a writer?
    2. Does Lamott seem to learn about writing from other writers or from people in her community who aren't writers? Or is it about even? How might this feedback be different? How similar?
    3. How does Lamott think writers can find the community they need? Are there any kinds of community writers should try to avoid, based on what Lamott says in Bird by Bird?
    4. What can a writer give back to the communities that writer belongs to?

    Chew on This

    Lamott doesn't think you can separate writing and community.

    Lamott seems to make the story happen for all her communities, not just her high school classmates.

  • Mortality/Immortality

    Okay, so you signed up for a book about writing, not a book about life and death. But it turns out that life and death are some of the most important things writing can talk about, and since one goal of writing is to help us process and understand our experiences, and life and death are pretty big parts of most people's experiences, Bird by Bird turns out to be about mortality and immortality, too. Anne Lamott finds herself writing to interpret and share the lives of those she cares about—as well as to cope with their deaths and give a certain kind of continuing life to their stories.

    Questions About Mortality/Immortality

    1. Why do you think writing is such an important way of coping with death for Lamott? What hints does she give us about this question?
    2. In what ways could writing be said to give immortality in Bird by Bird? Do you find these ways satisfying?
    3. Which people die in Bird by Bird? How does writing help Lamott explore who they were? Is that different for different people, or is it a pretty similar pattern?

    Chew on This

    Writing makes our communities bigger, and sharing memories with those larger communities helps make mortality more bearable, according to Anne Lamott.

    Writing does more in this book than keep alive someone's memory; it helps Lamott understand who that person was and incorporate what she learned from that person into her own life.

  • Identity

    Shmooper, know thyself.

    Easier said than done, right? In fact, figuring out who you are is one of the million-dollar questions in all of literature. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks a lot about what it means to be a writer, what it means to be part of a community, what it means to be shaped by your family, even what it means to be a human being. And who better than a writer to talk about all this? It doesn't get better than getting it from the horse's mouth.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does being a writer shape somebody's identity? Is there something about it that can help us understand ourselves better?
    2. What communities help shape a writer's identity? Family? Friends? Other writers? Anyone else?
    3. Are there things about our identities that make it hard to tell the truth as a writer? Family troubles? Getting bullied in school? Having a hard time making money? Does Lamott think writing about these things, tough as it is, helps us understand ourselves better?

    Chew on This

    Sometimes the toughest things to write about are the ones that really show us who we are, when we face them.

    According to Lamott, you can't become a good writer without wrestling with who you are.

  • Spirituality/Religion

    Anne Lamott learns about life and writing from all sorts of experiences, religious and spiritual among them. Lamott is technically Christian, but she also seems to value insights and examples from other religions, as well as from more general spiritual patterns like meditation that might be practiced (although not always in the same way) by those of many faiths or none.

    In Bird by Bird, Lamott sees writing as being about life, and religion and spirituality are aspects of her own life that give it meaning. She takes a broad view: you don't have to be religious or spiritual to be a writer, but for some people, it can help because, in the end, it's all about having an open mind and being in awe of life.

    Questions About Spirituality/Religion

    1. How do writing and spirituality interact for Lamott? What do they have to say to each other?
    2. Though Lamott identifies herself as a person who learns some things about life and writing from religion and spirituality, she also wants to encourage writers who don't believe in God or spirituality. How does she do this at various points in the book? Do you think her efforts to include people who don't see themselves as spiritual or religious are successful at these moments?
    3. For Lamott, being a writer isn't just about the self but about a wider community. How do spirituality and religion interact with community for Lamott?

    Chew on This

    Lamott learns a lot about writing from her own church, and she seems eager to learn from other people's spiritual experiences, too, whatever their belief systems are.

    For Lamott, writing can be one path to becoming a fuller person.

  • Dissatisfaction

    You may be surprised to learn this, but Anne Lamott is obviously pretty sold on writing. As she tell us in Bird by Bird, she thinks it will open up your life to awe, help you grasp the truths of being human, let you engage with your community, and make you seriously and obsessively miserable on a regular basis.

    Wait, what?

    Oh, yeah. Writing is hard work, and there are days when you don't want to do it. There will be stretches of time when you think everything you're writing is crap. Sometimes, it really is crap. But dissatisfaction is just part of the job description—and, double surprise—it can actually inspire you to do even better, more satisfying work. How's that for a paradox?

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. What kinds of satisfaction does Lamott think we can gain from writing? What makes writing satisfying in these ways?
    2. What kinds of satisfaction does Lamott think we can't gain from writing? Where does she think we might find them instead?
    3. Does Lamott seem to think the satisfaction she finds in being a writer is worth the dissatisfaction she describes?
    4. How might a dissatisfied writer become a more satisfied writer, based on Lamott's advice?

    Chew on This

    For Lamott, publication is mostly irrelevant to a lot of the best things writing does for us.

    Lamott thinks writing is worth all the hassle because of the changes it causes in the writer as a person.

  • Perseverance

    Sorry, folks, but you're not going to get on The New York Times bestseller list if you're not committed to doing the hard work to get there, and it's not all about playing poker with famous writers. In some ways, Bird by Bird is Anne Lamott's ode to perseverance; she's convinced that being a writer takes real commitment. And, you know, we should probably believe her. Luckily, she makes it fun by giving us a boatload of inspiring stories and quotes about writers—including herself—who've kept on going, whatever the odds.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What kinds of rewards does Lamott say perseverance will get you as a writer?
    2. What are some things that can help you hang in there with writing when it's tough, according to Lamott?
    3. Why does Lamott think perseverance as a writer is so worth it, even when she's complaining about the fact that she's not a billionaire?

    Chew on This

    For Lamott, learning to tell your stories and the stories of others is one of the most satisfying things you can do, period.

    Finding a community is one of the best things you can do to keep going as a writer, according to Lamott.