Book Review: Bird by Bird
Posted December 30, 2012on:
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Anchor Books, 1994, 237 pp.
I went through a real fascination with Anne Lamott a few years ago. I read Traveling Mercies and Plan B, and then I went out and got all her novels to read and I loved them all. Then I read Grace (Eventually), and gushed all over it because it touched all my vulnerable new mother buttons. Then she published Some Assembly Required, which I did not read because it seemed such an exposure of her child and grandchild, and I just got turned off. When I returned to find the gems from her earlier works, they were not as good as I remembered them to be. While Lamott was still clever and quippy, I realized her neuroses were no longer interesting and her theology not as fresh or deep as I had previously thought. So I found myself feeling quite grumpy toward Anne Lamott for awhile.
However, since I began writing more seriously, everyone has recommended Bird by Bird as one of the best books on writing that is out there. I decided that I could not consider myself a writer if I had not read it, and my writer’s group urged me on. At first, all my gripes got in the way of appreciating Bird by Bird, especially since it seemed geared specifically to fiction writers and those trying to make a life by their writing. It probably didn’t help that I had already heard other people tell me about the best parts, which took away the power of their punch. Like Lamott, though, I found grace (eventually), and grew to appreciate Bird by Bird more as I made my way through to the end. There is much that is simply alright, punctuated by phrases, paragraphs or insights that are brilliant and powerful.
Some favorite insights:
On folk sayings and cliches:
Most people’s intuitions are drowned out by folk sayings. We have a moment of real feeling or insight, and then we come up with a folk saying that captures the insight in a kind of wash. The intuition may be real and ripe, fresh with possibilities, but the folk saying is guaranteed to be a cliche, stale and self-contained. (113)
This is one of my pet peeves in preaching, and writing, as well as in pastoral situations with people. I have not been able to say why nearly so well as she has.
On writer’s block:
The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty. (178)
Connected to the emptiness, she offers this wisdom about giving of oneself in writing:
If you give freely, there will always be more… It is only when I go ahead and decide to shoot my literary, creative wad on a daily basis that I get any sense of the full presence… You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward.
This talk about giving is connected to one of the most helpful themes throughout the book: the difference between the rewards of writing and the rewards of being published. Many people want to get published, but that’s not the same as finding joy in the work of writing. Writing is a lot of work, but you have to find your joy in the work and the words it produces, not in the external recognition of publication. While the importance of publication has shifted in the self-publishing world of blogs and internet publications, her point remains: it should be about the writing, not the validation.
I know that’s true for me in this little blog space—it’s best when I am writing in order to give, to work things out with others, and not seeking to create something that creates lots of hits and Facebook shares. Thanks, Anne Lamott, once again for reminding me.