Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott was the first how-to writing book I’ve read in a long time, and I was pleasantly surprised. She captured my attention almost instantly in the introduction, when she touched on one of the main reasons I’ve wanted to become a writer: “but the idea of spending entire days in someone else’s office doing someone else’s work did not suit my father’s soul. I think it would have killed him” (p. xii).
I also loved the humor she used not only to poke fun at her own insecurities, “[I] was so tense that I walked around with my shoulders up to my ears like Richard Nixon,” (p. xiii), but also to point out that writing is something that should be done out of enjoyment and not as a way to become rich.
She does a great job of sympathizing with beginners without being patronizing, “Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can…don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Just start getting it down” (p. 4). She also points out that being a writer is not the fairy tale that most people imagine it to be, but it’s still worth it.
This particular passage really sums up the whole book for me:
What’s real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you’ll get better. At times when you’re working, you’ll sit there feeling hung over and bored, and you may or may not be able to pull yourself up out of it that day. But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. (p. 14).
I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but this book made me want to be a writer even more. It inspired me and gave me so many helpful tips. I think the biggest challenge for most writers is feeling alone, thinking you’re crazy because your mind works differently from most other people’s. It is so refreshing and comforting to hear that this is it. This is the life. This is what it’s like to be a writer.
I also enjoyed her direct, no-nonsense approach, “the bottom line is that if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won’t be able to get very far if you don’t start trying to get over your perfectionism” (p.31). She also talked about the friends she was jealous of and why, and the friends she decided not to like anymore because they didn’t like her manuscripts, which was unexpected, but at the same time, wonderful to know that other people have those feelings.
I paid extra attention to the Character and Dialogue chapters, because those are areas that I need work. I think her ideas were extremely helpful. “Knowledge of your characters also emerges the way a Polaroid develops: it takes time for you to know them,” (p. 44), and “ask yourself how they stand, what they carry in their pockets or purses, what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. Whom would they have voted for last time? Why should we care about them anyway? What would be the first thing they stopped doing if they found out they had six months to live? Would they start smoking again? Would they keep flossing?” (p.45).
I had never thought of getting to know the characters like getting to know a friend, but I know that this will help me a great deal. And once the character makes him or herself known, the dialogue will follow organically: “the better you know the characters, the more you’ll see things from their point of view,” (p. 68).
This may almost make it seem like being a writer goes hand in hand with being mentally ill, especially when she goes on to explain that listening to the inner voice is “listen[ing] to your broccoli,” (p.115), but it fits in so perfectly with the rest of the book, and the idea that the characters write themselves that it doesn’t seem crazy.
Her chapter on finding your voice was not as helpful as I had hoped. To me, it seemed as though she was just explaining why you must use your own voice, rather than how to find it. “The truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes,” (p.199).
Anne Lamott’s voice is very apparent throughout. She is witty and helpful and comforting, and makes the whole process seem enjoyable, despite its difficulty.
This was probably the most helpful writing guide I have ever read to date. It made me realize that writers are not the mythical creatures I’ve always imagined them to be. It made me realize that I can be one, and that I am one.