At first, Bird by Bird seems a strange title for a book about writing. And, well, yes it is. Possibly if it was about to be published for the first time today its publisher would have demanded a new title, something more search-engine friendly.
Thankfully, in 1994, when Anne Lamott’s book first arrived on the shelves of booksellers, the internet did not rule the world. Back in those days, people liked witty titles even if their meanings weren’t always immediately clear.
|My well-used copy of Bird by Bird|
Bird by Bird is a book about writing, and about life as a writer. It doesn’t tell you how to improve your grammar, how to write a synopsis or how to find a publisher, but it does tell you how to write when you think you can’t, how to start looking at life with a writer’s frame of mind and what it feels like after publication of your book.
Bird by Bird does have chapters on characters, plot and dialogue. But these aren’t quite like the chapters on characters, plot and dialogue you might have read elsewhere. It doesn’t tell you to work out your plot to the nth degree, making sure you get rid of any anomalies. Instead, Lamott says: “Plot grows out of characters. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.”
Lamott also says: “I say don’t worry about plot. Worry about the characters.” So, possibly if you are writing a thriller, with the intentions of making a few millions in a few months, this is not the book on writing you would choose to read. This is not a book on how to write a best seller. Having said that, it is a best seller, so maybe Lamott is worth listening to whatever your writing intentions. Besides:
Bird by Bird is funny. Much of the reason it’s funny is because you can see yourself in it; you can see your own insecurities about writing in it. Lamott understands. And for some reason, that makes us laugh. Well, that and the fact that:
Bird by Bird has the best chapter title in any book about writing. It is: Shitty First Drafts. Here’s my favourite sentence: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first drafts.” If we were to remember just that one piece of information about writing every time we sat down to write, we would never feel discouraged or blocked again. A terrible first draft is not the end. It’s a beginning.
And what about that strange title? Lamott does tell a story that reveals why she chose that title. I won’t give the whole story away, but let’s just say it’s to do with just getting words onto paper (or onto the screen) one by one. It’s about having the courage to write when you don’t believe you can ever finish, when you feel totally overwhelmed by the task ahead. I suppose, a large part of why I love this book so much is because, along with Lamott’s Operating Instructions and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, it got me through my Creative Writing MA at the same time as I was caring for a premature baby.
Since I’ve already reviewed Writing Down the Bones, you might be wondering which of these books I’d recommend most. I say: read both. Reading one book on writing gives you one person’s opinion and it may or may not be right for you. Both these books emphasise the importance of allowing writing to come from the unconscious mind, both are compassionate and witty. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
is divided into longer chapters than Writing Down the Bones, so possibly if you do your reading in short bursts the latter would be best for you. But both are chatty in style and easy to read. And both do tell you it’s no good just waiting for the muse if you want to be a good writer, rather than just a writer. Practice is so important, or as Lamott says: “you can’t just sit at your desk drooling. You have to move your hand across the paper or keyboard.”
And really, that’s the most important piece of advice anyone can give on writing.