Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life didn’t read to me like a writing how-to so much as a writing how-to-as-confessional. It is at times funny and at times trying to be funny but works best in its rawest moments when the author allows us to see the messy parts of the writer’s psyche – and especially at those moments when we recognize ourselves. Have we ever felt jealous at another writer’s success? Shhhh! No we never have such base thoughts. Except here she owns it and breaks down how she struggled through and never really overcame it so much as learned to accept it and move on. Have we ever struggled to accept criticism? Us, no we are open to the process. Yeah, right. She shows us the inner thoughts of the resistant writer and it’s not pretty. I hashtag a lot of my posts #TheWritingLife and I try to be honest about that journey. This book reveals me to be a kindergartner when it comes to acknowledging the worst parts of it – and in that sense is an extremely brave book because she doesn’t always come across well and she’s okay with that. Her anecdotes are vivid – the coke fueled re-pitch to her editor after she’d had a re-worked manuscript rejected after borrowing cash to fly to the meeting hopeful of getting the balance of her advance to repay the debt comes to mind. As writers, we feel overwhelmed, ill-equipped, undervalued like we’re struggling to get over a hump on the other side of which lies all the things writerly dreams are made of. This book reminds us that after that hump there’ll be another hump, we may never get published, we may publish but then never become bestsellers, we may get published only to discover we are on the bottom rung of what the industry considers to be quality fiction, we may get published but without the marketing support needed to stand out in the crowd, we may get published and then dropped (present, please!), so why do we keep writing? “Because of the spirt, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.”
Hmmm…maybe that’s enough. Some days it is. The most important message to take away from Lamott’s book comes from an anecdote she tells early on. When they were kids, her brother, as kids do, had left a particular homework on birds to the last minute. The night before he had to turn it in, he’s sitting at the table, books on birds spread around him, crying real tears at the impossibility of the task before him. Then his father says, just take it “bird by bird”. This was the part of the book that provided a teachable moment between me and my nephew; it is the part of the book that gave the book its title; and it is the part of the book that reminds us as writers that that novel begins with putting first a word then another word then another word onto that blank page (and then when all the pages are crowded with words, facing the reality that we have go back to the beginning); there’s no other way.