Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott – A Reading Journal

Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Bird by Bird is one of the few books I’ve read about the act/art of writing. Since I was a little girl I’ve had this fantasy in my head of being a ‘Writer’. I never really had a clear vision of it – I didn’t want to necessarily be rich from it, or famous, or be a slave to it at all, I just wanted to be one. When people asked me what I wanted to be, I would usually say a ‘Teacher’, because even then I knew that ‘Writer’ was a difficult career to get into, and an almost sacred one – I didn’t want to say it out loud.

When you finish school, however long you go, you slowly realize a little bit at a time that this is it. This is life, what am I going to do with it? It’s not freeing, like you might think – it’s intensely paralyzing. It’s been several years now since I’ve graduated high school and dabbled in community college, and as I continue to ‘grow up’, I realize there’s nothing stopping me from being a writer, and that in fact, I am one.

I may have a romantic view of ‘Writer’, and I can’t really explain what I mean by that right now – I can’t formulate the idea into words just yet, but perhaps someday I will be able to explain it, but maybe you already understand. When I sit down to write, there is a feeling – like an energy. It’s not when I’m writing everything all the time, but when I’m able to slow my brain and really focus on what I’m putting to paper, there is a ‘fog’ that I slip into, and it’s wonderful.

I think one of my biggest hesitations as a kid, and even until very recently, is that I didn’t think I was very much better at writing than anyone else. I remember a paper I wrote for one of my toughest college classes, Philosophy. The teacher was brutal, and I was really struggling to keep up. I think the one thing that saved me in that class was my essays. I remember one day very clearly getting a paper back that I didn’t have high hopes for – and as I listened to the grumbles of the students around me getting bad news as she handed them back, I wasn’t feeling optimistic. I got an A and a note that went something like this “You are very good at explaining your thought processes through your writing”. I think I was beaming for the rest of the semester. It wasn’t the first time I received praise for my writing, but the class was so hard, and the teacher so picky and specific, that it really meant something to me.

Since then, I’ve had two people who know me on a day to day basis, but don’t know much about me personally – for instance, they didn’t know I kept this blog or even that I’m interested in writing at all – tell me that I should be a writer. The most recent time was three weeks ago from someone who isn’t afraid to speak the truth. Friends of mine note some of my characteristics as having an extensive vocabulary (though I don’t think I have one), and generally being good at wording things (also – grammar police). I get asked A LOT how to say something through a text message for example. These things of course, don’t make me a writer, but they are flattering!

What makes me a writer, I think, is my mentality, and my desire to write. I don’t always actually sit down to do it (after all, in this world we live in there’s only about a billion other things to be doing at all times, and writing isn’t exactly something you can multi-task), and I have very little work, and none of it completed to show for it, but I’m always thinking of stories in my mind, always daydreaming another scene, more characters, another situation – and they’re there, waiting to be put to paper, when they’re ready.

Bird by Bird

I read this book on high recommendation from Mabel at Maple & A Quill. I also recommend her post about this book, which an be found here.

At first I was skeptical, because Anne Lamott is a little ‘out there’ in the beginning. It seemed a little bit like she was trying to be funny or witty or something – maybe she’s just overly-confident. Luckily, it’s not like that the whole way through, although it does fade in and out frequently; after I’d read about 50 pages I realized that it actually was funny (usually), and I relaxed about it a bit (the mood you go into something with radically effects what you get out of it).

What matters is that ultimately, I respect her opinions on the writing process. She has the same outlook I do, on most points. Find your characters, spend time with them, and plot and conflict will come on its own. As I shared in my goodreads progress update, no matter how stupid/crazy/ridiculous you’ve felt about your first draft of anything, this girl has felt worse!

I found many ideas from this book helpful and inspiring. The one inch picture frame, for example (although I didn’t understand this at first, I came to realize what she meant in context): focus on one element, and write as much as you can about it; or as I interpret it, write an idea from another perspective. For example: what would the narrative of your dinner party be like from your dog?

She also calmed my nerves about one of the stories I’m currently developing. I’ve got a handful of characters in mind, and no ultimate plot. I’m not sure where its ‘going’. I’m not sure where it will climax. I’m not sure if any of the events I have in my brain right now are the right ones, if they’re realistic, or if I’m forcing them to happen. I don’t know anything yet, except five characters of varying importance and a strong desire to write about them. Apparently that’s all you need.

Honestly, I think I liked Mabel’s blog about it better than the actual book, and that happens sometimes. Although I didn’t really ‘click’ with this book, I’m glad I read it. There was quite a bit of valuable advice for aspiring writers, it was quick to read, and mostly uplifting. As Lamott says at one point in the book, writing is about telling the absolute truth about things, it’s what connects us as humans – finding similarities in someone else’s story to our own, something we can relate to.

Until Next Time,
Emma