Monday, August 31, 2009

Bird By Bird (A Backlist Book Review)

Never has a writing book been more recommended to me.

Never has a writing book been pressed into my hand with greater fervor than this one.

Every professional writer I know has this on the shelf or has at least read it and probably been among those who tried to get me to read it.

Every one of these since the first one has been met with the secret handshake, the knowing smile, the nod: I write shitty first drafts too and I don’t feel bad about it. I’ve read Bird by Bird. And if you want to be a writer, so should you.

Since it was first published in 1994, author and writing teacher Anne Lamott has given us permission to be writers and for writers to be human. We don’t have to feel isolated and alone, sitting at the table in the cafĂ© or in the corner of our garret apartment, wrestling with our demons as pencils and typewriters and laptops fight our attempts to get it all down on the page before it escapes. Anne’s got our backs.

All of the best writer’s guides have been at least one part literary memoir and Bird By Bird is no different. With humor and grace, Anne takes us through her unorthodox childhood with her writer father and his writer friends. When she finally finds her voice as a result of his fight with brain cancer, we are there with her as ghosts at her side as she struggles as all of us have to find the words to encapsulate the strange humor of the dying and the absurdity of life. From that absurdity of life, Anne draws her inspiration and her humor. And in the process she teaches us so very much about both writing and life as a spiritual journey.

Anne’s iconic tips for writing range from the empty 1 inch picture frame that reminds us to write in small assignments to the aforementioned permission to sit down and write a shitty first draft even if it seems all the other writers in the world are taking dictation from God. Get it all down, make it pretty later. Odds are that the people whose final drafts seem dictated from Beyond had a shitty first draft too.

With frank language and the humor of the sensitive soul behind the words, Anne draws us into her life and her classroom. She dwells on the fears and outright neuroses that all writers deal with, makes it ok for us to feel that way, reminds us we’re not alone in that regard either. There are others out there doing the same.

This book serves a larger purpose as well. She reminds us that we are all mortal. Each and every one of us is dying a little each day, and though she understands why we do it, procrastination is a sin. Every day you put off writing is one less day that you will have to write. And so much of the damage we wrestle with is self-inflicted. Perhaps the best advice she gives she is passing on from her father. She reminds us that no matter how big the project, no matter how big your subject or how daunting the research ahead of you, no matter many birds crowd your narrative, you don’t have to write it all at once -- just take it bird by bird.

1 comment:

  1. I love BIRD BY BIRD, and I embrace shitty first drafts. ;)

    Great post. You write beautifully.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).