Bird by Bird

bird by birdannotation by Aaron Gansky

book by Anne Lamott

When sitting down to write this, I thought, “Why not just put down all the memorable advice she gives and what it meant to me as a writer?” Then, the cold reality: not enough space. Above all, Bird by Bird is a practical book filled with great advice and subtle (often not-so-subtle) humor. Anne Lamott’s voice is clear, and she pulls no punches. She’s as frank as I’ve ever heard anyone on the subject of writing. One thing I like is that she is affirming and reassuring, while still being pointed and direct. Writing is work. It will be difficult. It will suck at times and you’ll hate your life. But you keep going and, eventually, it works out for you.

The name of the book comes from an example she tells about her brother. He was ten years old and working on a report about birds. He’d had three months to do the assignment and, in true ten-year-old student fashion, waited until the night before to begin the project. As Lamott put it, he was “immobilized by hugeness of the task ahead.” Then, her father gave him some great advice. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” She uses this anecdote to express the importance of short assignments. In fact, she keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk to remind her that all she needs to write is what she can see through that frame.

For me, this was encouraging, but I have to doubt the effectiveness of the advice for a commercial writer, one who is trying to support him or herself with their craft. I love the example and the idea, and am reassured by it on days when I don’t get much more than a paragraph written. Still, if my father, who supports himself entirely on his contracts, wrote an inch a day, he’d never make a deadline and never get the advances that he needs to pay his bills. His contracts and advances, however, are likely nowhere near what Lamott makes for each of her books. So perhaps the key is being a successful author first, saving up your money, and then writing an inch a day. That, of course, would be ideal.

The second piece of advice she gives, and in her estimation, equally as paramount to writing, is the idea of shitty first drafts. This was not a new idea to me, but she couples it with the idea of perfectionism. Uh oh. Now she’s talking directly to me. As a perfectionist, I find myself revising and revising, but seldom moving on. That’s one reason I wanted to complete my novel. I wanted to get it done and then revise the completed project. And always, always, is that little voice of the perfectionist who sits on my shoulder and says, “Seriously? You’re going to write that? Really?”

An example: While working as a youth pastor for a church, the senior pastor asked me to produce and Easter Drama for the congregation. He handed me the script he wanted to use. I read it and told him it was miserably bad, that we couldn’t use it. It was theologically inaccurate and bordered or heresy in places. Additionally, the dialogue was stiff and forced etc. etc. etc. (I’m also overly critical). He say to me, “Too bad. You’re doing it.” I politely told him, “Nuh uh.” He gave me the look that says, “If you like your job, you’ll do it.” So I said, “Can I rewrite the stupid thing?” He agrees. I complain to my wife about the amount of work I have to do and she says, “Deal with it. You brought it on yourself.” I love her dearly, which was a particularly good thing at the time. She was right. And that’s how I am with all my work. I still look at my first novel and think, “It could be good, if I rewrote it from the ground up.”

She mentions that writing is like hypnotizing yourself into thinking you’re good long enough for you to write. Then unhypnotizing yourself and revising what you’ve done. I found this to be incredibly helpful in terms of coping with my perfectionism.

Another point I found encouraging was the fact that even “famous” writers struggle with self-doubt. I loved her story of her manuscript that went through four drafts, and after each draft she thought it was done, perfect, until her editor told her otherwise. And when he did, she sank into great despair, which she quickly tried to remedy with alcohol and “the merest bit of cocaine.” So maybe it’s all writers, not just me.

Lastly, I liked the idea of a story developing slowly. She gives two examples for this. The first is a Polaroid picture. She says we’re not supposed to know what a Polaroid is of until the final moments when the image emerges from the greenish-gray murk. I like that. I like that it’s okay to have a murky story. I often want to script out the whole book, but I like to leave it open and be flexible. But even then, I find myself forcing events in the plot to get the people where I want them. I’ve not been comfortable up to this point with the uncertainty of where my characters are going. Lamott suggests just having the characters is enough. Watch what they do. Plot will stem from the seed of the characters. It’s a lot like driving at night, she says. You can’t see your destination, but you can see what’s in your headlights, and you can drive the whole way like that. I need to give myself the license to have uncertainty in my novels and stories. If I don’t know where they’re going, the readers definitely won’t, and that should add some nice tension, so long as I don’t resort to Deus ex Machina (ahem, Dean Koontz).

Overall, a great read that lived up to the hype. Much of the book stimulated a plethora of writing assignments for myself and for my Creative Writing students. They may not be too fond of Ms. Lamott, but I sure am!

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