I first read Bird by Bird a long time ago and often recommend it to people who have a desire to write. After talking with a friend about the book recently, I thought it time to revisit and re-read the book and see what new things I might take away from it.
Unlike Big Magic, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, Bird by Bird is more of a traditional book on writing — offering direct advice, exercises and support to help you write and write better. That said, Lamott has a great way of interjecting the realities of being a writer along with a strong dose of humor to help you cope with the ups, downs, sideways and convolutions of writing a being a writer.
“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.'”
On the concrete side of the writing equation, Lamott details her advice on writing using “Short Assignments” — committing to only a few hundred words detailing a particular character or scene. Just enough to get your writing — something — which can often be the most difficult part of any project.
Next is allowing yourself to write, in her words, “Shitty First Drafts. This is Lamott’s way of saying that sometimes you just have to write. We can all get tied up in trying to make every word we write perfect — the first time. Almost anyone who has ever written will tell you that this is a sure road to madness, writer’s block and worse.
An entire essay on Perfectionism follows to give some reasons and some tools to combat it and continue writing, no matter how bad you might think your project is right now.
Lamott then follows with chapters on other important aspects of writing including Set Design, Plot, Dialogue and more.
Part II of Bird by Bird, The Writing Frame of Mind is a series of in-depth essays on “Looking Around” or how better to see the world around you and use it in your writing, “The Moral Point of View” which explains how it is very difficult to complete any writing project that you don’t care passionately about — at least in some small way. You have to have the thread that drives you through your project. Something important you want to say. There is also an important section on “Jealousy” that I think is required reading for any writer. Jealousy is something we must all learn to deal with if we want to have a happy life and a successful (or at least, fun) writing career. Otherwise the “green-eyed dragon” will gobble you up with a moment’s thought.
In Part III, an essay on “Calling Around” explains how important it is for a writer to find sources for their writing — those people who can call on with specific information about world’s you may not move in, but still want to use as a setting in your writing. Lamott also details why it is so very important to find a trusted friend to read your early drafts and how you may go about finding them. Writing groups might be one solution and Lamott shares her thoughts on how important a good (and functional) group like this might be for you.
Part IV deals with the nasty bits of being a “professional”, “published” writer. It isn’t an easy life and there are a few things you need to know before you head down that road. It can be unforgiving. It can be crushing to your ego. It can also be exhilarating and dramatic and a host of other feelings.
I read Bird by Bird essay by essay in most cases. Taking time to think and digest the lesson in each section before moving on. You might also turn to (or return to) individual sections were you need a bit more support and a bit more thinking to use the lessons in your own writing.
After this re-read of Bird by Bird, I still think this is one of the foremost books for writers of all levels, but especially for those just beginning their writing journey. There is a lot of great advice, guidance, and truth in this book that can benefit everyone.