As I’ve been stepping up my writing output lately, I’ve also been reading just about everything I can get my hands on about writing. What can I say? I’m a librarian…I research.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life presents a very thoughtful and unique approach to the writing process. Though I had heard of Anne Lamott before, I’d never read any of her work. Based on the merits of this book, it’s apparent that I’ve been missing out.
What she says here isn’t entirely new but is nevertheless true. This is the point. Writing can be both a madness and its cure. It’s necessary sometimes to hear the truth, told in a new way, to bring you back to where you need to be. What makes Lamott’s take unique is her ability to connect with the reader with her use of humor coupled with absolute and relentless honesty.
Lamott frames her reflections in the context of her writing class. She is addressing the various questions that inevitably come up in the course of teaching writing to eager students ready for their publication contract and that mad NYT Bestseller cash. While the book does offer some practical advice (using index cards to take notes, for example), it is far more focused on the internal process of writing than the nuts and bolts of the getting words on the page and getting them published. This is not so much a book on how to write as much as why you should write and how you are going to get in your own way if you do not think about what you are doing.
What Lamott is trying to mold is the proper mindset for producing good work. She is preparing you for the mental traps that you create for yourself and gives you the means to either avoid them altogether or to dig your way out. These insights are presented with many great anecdotes, quotes from other writers, and in Lamott’s own ironic and insightful voice. She becomes the friend with the wicked sense of humor who doesn’t tell you what you want to hear but what you need to hear.
For Lamott, writing is a pursuit of truth. Good writing is always, at its core, truthful and about real human experience. Her process is very organic, starting with the fertilizer of the “shitty first draft”. The work must be allowed to grow where it will, developing slowly like a photograph, eventually growing into something real and resonant. Part of the work of the writer is to learn to listen for that internal voice, the voice of the character and the voice of the writer’s instinct, to direct her where she needs to go. Of course, this isn’t always easy…and Lamott is very up-front about this fact. One of the greatest strengths of this book is that the author does an excellent job of describing perfectly the inner struggles of the writer (the paranoia, the anxiety, the needless perfectionism) while at the same time delivering hope, and more importantly faith, that these struggles can be overcome.
This book spoke very deeply to me. By illustrating the exact internal struggles and imaginary arguments that I have been experiencing since I began writing again in earnest, she demonstrated that not only am I not alone, but I’m actually probably on the right track. Written in a series of short chapters, it’s great for picking up and enjoying piecemeal or as a complete work. I had borrowed this book on the recommendation of a friend. I will probably need to buy it so that I can return to it from time to time to recharge my mental batteries and get me going on the right path.