heronThe best thing about Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing & Life is, even when the thought of sitting down and writing is about as appealing to you as root canal work, she inspires you to want to write. That alone is worth the investment. The book is full of mostly well-established wisdom about the art of writing, but it’s written intelligently and with great humour and passion. She really practices what she preaches.

She takes you through the standard rules: Write every day at the same time, always write something each day, no matter how brief, or how hard it is; break the job into manageable tasks (“take it bird by bird”); start with short assignments and “shitty first drafts” that just get everything down, and edit later; avoid perfectionism; write about what you know; use your own authentic voice and style; use index cards as reminders, phone friends and experts to get background material you need quickly and authentically, and use writing groups and trusted readers to keep you going and honest. She explains how to deal with writer’s block, agents, publishers, and jealousy of other (successful but clearly inferior) writers.

What I liked best about the book were some of the humbler, lesser known rules of good writing:

  • Stories tell themselves through you, so it’s critical to find means to silence the noise in your head and let them come out
  • Flawed, hopeful narrators are great voices, and points of view, from which to tell your story
  • Plot need be nothing more than the discovery of what each of your characters cares about, revealed vividly and continuously
  • Characters must show strength or courage to be sympathetic
  • Dialogue must be authentic and individual, yet concise and fast-moving
  • Good writers must be observant, reverent, and even startled by life and its lessons
  • Great stories are about great truths, things the writer cares passionately about that come out in the writing: “To be a good writer you not only have to write a great deal, but you have to care.”
  • You must trust yourself and your intuition, especially with first drafts, not self-criticize and second guess every step
  • You have to give the best you have always, not save it up for the next story
  • Writers have a duty to the reader to be honest, to make things clearer, to help heal readers’ “gaping wounds and dazed expressions”, to soothe

The book includes an extraordinary 2-page story by the author that illustrates these and other points: It is charming, heartbreaking, full of surprises, imbued with the author’s great love for two very special characters, imbued as well with a bit of wonderful, spare, dialogue, some stunning imagery and an improbable analogy. But mostly, the story moves, and in so doing it takes the reader along for the ride.

Until you can read Bird by Bird for yourself, here are two quotes by other accomplished writers about the art of writing:

“The greatest writing is done on the edge of what you know and what you don’t know.”
— Beth Nielsen Chapman

“The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.”
— Edwin Schlossberg

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2 Responses to BIRD BY BIRD

  1. kara says:

    I re-read her book every year. It’s an inspiration. But then so are you.Great post Dave

  2. Michael says:

    Excellent review, Dave! I’m going to pick it up.

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