The Best Advice from Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird’

bird_by_bird31I just re-read this classic of writing advice. I’ve felt a bit adrift in the direction of my writing of late, which is a common symptom between books. (I just finished Seinfeldia but it won’t be out until next year; I haven’t settled on my next book yet.) Approaching a five-hour plane ride back from Portland, I had just finished the book I brought with me (Jami Attenberg’s excellent Saint Mazie) and needed something. I downloaded Bird by Bird on a hunch that I needed it; I haven’t read it in years. I read the entire book in 24 hours and highlighted basically every other line. It read completely differently for me now. Ten years ago, I found inspiration in its practical advice to keep plugging away at my writing; this time, I laughed out loud many, many times at her more cynical depictions of living publishing life and of teaching writing classes. I also found great comfort in all of her tortured feelings about publishing. She’s hugely successful, and even she was feeling this way on her third and fourth books and beyond.

There are too many lines that I loved to list here—it would mean just retyping the whole book—but I’ll give you a few:

It is one of the greatest feelings known to humans, the feeling of being the host, of hosting people, of being the person to whom they come for food and drink and company. This is what the writer has to offer.

On writing books as a “present” to others …

[I] think of the writers who have given a book to me, and then to write a book back to them.

My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they’ve outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all.

Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t—and, in fact, you’re not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.

And my favorite, a scene from her writing class, in which she tries to present the idea of using your own negative feelings in your writing.

I read them a poem by Phillip Lopate that someone once sent me, that goes:
We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
frustration
discontent and
torture
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
association
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.
They stare at me like the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. … Finally someone will raise his or her hand. “Can you send your manuscript directly to a publisher, or do you really need an agent?” After a moment or so, I say, You really need an agent.

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5 comments

  1. Ha. Love this. My husband gave me this book, along with four or five others, about writing. So far I’ve read this one and On Writing by Stephen King, which was fantastic. It definitely helps to keep things in perspective. There are so many times I imagine authors like him sitting down and doing exactly as Anne described. But reading this book and reminding myself of this every time I start to write and then get stuck, puts it all back into perspective and keeps me motivated.

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