Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

It’s Halloween in Apple Valley, Minnesota, and each porch in the neighbourhood is adorned with fake cobwebs and carved pumpkin heads. A variety of gothic, kitsch or downright disturbing tableaux decorate the front lawns: skeletons ride bicycles, witches hover on broomsticks, child sized ghosts link hands and dance around a tree, suspended midair… It’s all rather bewildering and yet impressive to this Irishwoman abroad – the energy, quirky creativity and seriousness invested in HAVING FUN!

I never felt European until I started coming to the Midwest of America. We do things so very differently each side of the Atlantic divide. ‘How to’ books included.








Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a case in point. Highly recommended by American writer friends and a National bestseller in the US, this part-memoir, part instruction manual is both delightful and infuriating. A glance at the reviews on Amazon reveal this is the literary equivalent of Marmite. Five stars abound, extolling the virtues of the book and how it speaks to the inner writer – whilst one star reviews lament its soft-spiritual centre and how much better it would have been if it remained solely instructions on writing, and left the life bit to individual writers to work out.

I have only started to read the book. I’m clearly obsessed. If not preparing to write, I’m writing, or revising, or reading about writing. I’m endlessly fascinated in how other people write, what and how they think about writing, or what moves them to write. Take this for example:

“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 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.”                      Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Titanic metaphors aside, I’ve been enjoying dipping into this book. Lamott is frank about her weaknesses and weirdnesses – her perception of the process of writing is at times familiar and comforting, other times alarming and strange, but what she does well is describe how it works for her. My only caveat (apart from the spiritual soft-centre) is that this is only one way and not the only way.

Reading books on how others do it (or blogs, for that matter) can be helpful – even if it simply reminds you how each writer finds their own individual route, one which may change project to project. I prefer descriptive to prescriptive.  There are as many paths to writing as there are whorls and lines in your fingerprints – the trick is to find the processes which work for you.

3 responses to “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

  1. Like your last line! nice imagery

  2. Bird by bird, buddy. Bird by bird.

    Ah, but which bird, and what to see in it and say about it? Books about writing are books, after all, —
    Oh, God, I want italics when I write this: please in your minds italicize “which” and the second “books” above . . .
    — and so they have their own physicality as well as their charms, insights, neuroses and aggravating habits. At one time in my life Natalie Goldberg’s (italics, please) Writing Down the Bones was important to me. I didn’t follow her practice for more than a few months — it was _her_ practice — but it helped me to start thinking of myself and my place in the world differently.

    And, like you said, Kaite, it gave me a chance to walk around in someone else’s practice, which can be a strange and savory thing to do.
    From La Crosse, Wisconsin, not so far from Apple Valley, where when we left the airport parking lot the clerk gave us each a candy bar . . . I think I will open mine now. It’s good to have a little sweetness in your day.


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