Author: Anne LamottMy GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
There were so many things I could relate to in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott: the thrill of seeing one’s name in print, of claiming ownership through a byline. Of the thrill of writing on days when it seems effortless, and the agony of days when the scratched words make you want to tear your hair out.
She doesn’t tell you that it’s easy to be a writer or even that the rewards can make up for the drudgery. The simple act of sitting down to write and the 1001 thoughts that conspire to get in the way.
The book, she tells us, consists of almost everything that she talks about in her writing classes. The whole is tied together with a thread of quiet humour that makes you chuckle out loud. The whole thing is peppered with charming personal stories and anecdotes from films and books, as well as real-life experiences.
In Part One – Writing, she tells us about the importance of shitty first drafts and the problem of seeking perfectionism. How when you write shitty first drafts, you find yourself honing one thing, and then when you zoom out, slowly you begin to notice other things around it. How in the writing of one thing, you will remember other things that weren’t in your mind, when you started.
She describes the act of character and plot development, how they must both drive the story forward. You, as the writer, must watch like a mute spectator as your characters come alive. Here she passes on a formula, originally defined by writer Alice Adams, who talks of ABDCE, namely, Action, Background, Development, Climax, Ending. She also touches upon Dialogue, which I personally find the most challenging.
In Part Two – The Writing Frame of Mind, she stays that there must be something at the centre of your story, something about which you care passionately, which must shine through. Our deepest beliefs must drive our writing.
In a delightful reference to an old Mel Brooks film, she reminds us to “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” It is a reminder to us to shut down our rational mind, and listen to our intuition which will lead us on in a far truer and more satisfying manner.
In Part Three – Help Along the Way, we learn about the importance of writing down every little tidbit we consider important on index cards. I’ve learned this the hard way, and vouch for this bit of advice. Everything I have written down, I still have; everything I have trusted to memory, I have forgotten.
She also tells us about the importance of writing groups, and of being able to rely on a few individuals who we can trust with our shitty first drafts, and of how to counter writer’s block.
In Part Four – Publication – and Other Reasons to Write, she tells us about Finding Your Voice, Giving, Publication, how it is not the end, but a beginning, a starting again on the blank page.
And then in Part Five – The Last Class, she tells us that as writers, we must keep writing.
When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or 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.
There’s so much that you would like to quote:
For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth.
Writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door of the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained.
A big heart is both a clunky and a delicate thing; it doesn’t protect itself and it doesn’t hide. It stands out, like a baby’s fontanel, where you can see the soul pulse through.
The style of this book has so many memoir-like elements mixed within the book on writing that by the end of it, I thought that Sam, her little son, was a pretty cool little guy, and was saddened at the death of Pam, her closest friend.
So much of the advice while being pertinent to writing is just as relevant to life. As when she tells us about how her dying friend, Pam, taught her how to live better, told her that she didn’t have time enough to waste on unnecessary things. Her response, “Okay, hmmm, let’s see. Dying tomorrow. What should I do today?” can help us not only write better, but also live better.
And how on days when the muse just won’t oblige, you write unrelated stuff, stuff from your old memories, while you wait for my unconscious to open a door and beckon. That’s when the party starts, as any writer who has experienced the beckoning can vouch for.
I want to end this review with one of my favourite quotes from the book: This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away.
It is a belief that has consumed me too.
And that is why the review of this delightful book is as good a time and place as any to make my big announcement.
With the last i being dotted and the last t crossed, I am now working towards self-publishing my first Book. It's a book that has grown out of this blog. A dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember, and it’s taken a long, long time to mature.
I hope for your prayers as I take my fledgling steps towards achieving my dream.