Did you ever read an article or a blog or a book, and afterward, you felt like the writer tapped your brain (but probably wrote everything much more coherently than you ever could have)? That is how I felt when I read Anne Lamott‘s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life “It’s one of the best books about writing ever written,” my writer/avid-reader cousin-in-law Julie told me. And I must agree. I only wish I’d known about it sooner. So now it is my turn to pass the good stuff onto other writers or people who are just interested in learning more about the writing process.
Although Bird by Bird is full of hyperbole, the exaggerations really aren’t too far off, at least with how writers often feel (even if we don’t literally move to a trailer park near our therapists, as Lamott suggests at one point). Her style is candid, humorous, and unafraid of pointing out some of the ugly realities of which new and non-writers are unaware. She explains writing truths that experienced writers know but that are so difficult to verbalize.
Below, are some of my favorite passages, although you should just do yourself a favor and read the whole book. If you want (or need) to be inspired, if you want to read about the trials and truths of what an author has experienced, this is the book for you.
Upon the publication of her first book, “it seemed that I was not in fact going to be taking early retirement. I had secretly believed that trumpets would blare, major reviewers would proclaim that not since Moby Dick had an American novel so captured life in all its dizzying complexity. And this is what I thought when my second book came out, and my third, and my fourth, and my fifth. And each time I was wrong.
“But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. . . The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.” (pp. xxv-xxvi)
“A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of the truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.” (p. 52)
“Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple.” (p. 53)
“I do the menial work of getting [the words] down on paper, because I’m the designated typist, and I’m also the person whose job it is to hold the lantern while the kid does the digging. What is the kid digging for? The stuff. Details and clues and images, invention, fresh ideas, an intuitive understanding of people. I tell you, the holder of the lantern doesn’t even know what the kid is digging for half the time—but she knows gold when she sees it.” (p. 56)
“Over and over I feel as if my characters know who they are, and what happens to them, and where they have been and where they will go, and what they are capable of doing, but they need me to write down for them because their handwriting, is so bad.” (p. 60)
Regarding writer’s block, “I no longer think of it as block. I think that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door.
“The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty. . .
“The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. . . But if you accept the reality that you have been given—that you are not in a productive creative period—you free yourself to begin filling up again.” (p. 178)
“We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.” (p. 198)
“Many nonwriters assume that publication is a thunderously joyous event in the writer’s life, and it is certainly the biggest and brightest carrot dangling before the eyes of my students. They believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo. Entire paragraphs and manuscripts of disappointment and rejection and lack of faith would be wiped out by one push of a psychic delete button and replaced by a quiet, tender sense of worth and belonging. Then they could wrap the world in flame.
“But this is not exactly what happens. Or at any rate, this is not what it has been like for me.” (pp. 210-211)
Why our writing matters: “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.” (p. 237)