Although it was first published in 1995, Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott seems to have made a resurgence in popularity in recent months.
Discussing her choice of title, Anne Lamott explains it this way:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
I should probably preface this by admitting that this is the first Anne Lamott book I’ve read. My understanding of her writing about writing would probably have benefited from reading some of the author’s previous works. But I do love to read and write, and to learn. One does not need to consider themselves in either of those first two categories in order to benefit from Anne’s writing here, though. (Nor must one read her previous works! :)) Her instructions, after all, are not merely on writing, but on life. (And when it comes right down to it, the instructions on writing alone are perhaps mostly applicable toward fiction writing over non-fiction.)
Anne is forthright, open, and realistic in her approach. Life is often hard, and so is writing. Sometimes it’s the beauty of pushing through the hardness that often leaves us seeing either with a sense of wonder. Sometimes, though, there’s a unique beauty of just letting go. Anne covers both.
On writing fiction, I loved Lamott’s advice to form characters over plots, and her suggestion to know the stories behind character as you form your own stories using them. She advocates for highlighting grace within the grit of life, though some may stumble at the grit she expresses.
Lamott often refers to her life experiences as a mother and writer to illustrate building life and writing, “bird by bird.” As a result, the reader comes to gain an understanding of the life of a writer. Anne frequently and wisely counsels herself and her readers to “live as if I am dying.”
As someone who loves reading and who wants to eventually devote more time and effort toward writing, I found this quote near the end compelling:
“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves of life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
Lamott also works hard to show the important connection between reading and writing. To a growing avid reader, this was encouraging. And from experience, albeit minimal, I see this as true. Sometimes we see reading as passive; but really, it’s foundational to the latter.