Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Book Summary

Novelist Anne Lamott shares wisdom on the writing process. In Bird by Bird, she speaks candidly about the ups and downs of living a creative life. She lays out the drawbacks as well as the gifts that writing offers those who choose to embrace it.

Notes and Quotes

Bird by Bird Summary (Credit: Goodreads)
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“I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work. You don’t give up.”

Lamott sold her first book at 26 years old. From that experience, she realized that publishing a book didn’t bring her the gratification or affirmation she expected.

“Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

What Lamott tells students on the first day of workshops she teaches.

  • “Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.”

Writing Tips

  • Sit down to work at approximately the same time every day.
    • “This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.”
    • “You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy of transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It’s a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.”
  • Carry and take notes with index cards.
    • Lamott says she has no efficient or well-organized method for managing her index cards. She just has them for the sake of taking notes.
      • “And all I can say is that I have them, I took notes on them, and the act of having written something down gives me a fifty-fifty shot at having it filed away now in my memory.”
  • Call or talk to people who have knowledge about subjects you want to write about.
    • “Being a writer guarantees that you will spend too much time alone – and that as a result, your mind will begin to warp.”
  • Join a writing group. It’s helpful to team up with some people who get together and just listen.
  • Find someone who won’t mind reading your drafts and will mark them up with useful suggestions.
    • Lamott shows her work to one or two people before submitting to an editor.
    • A good writing partner will give you feedback that doesn’t savage your work and make you feel like a total failure.
  • If you’re having trouble telling a story, try writing it in the form of a letter.
Looking for more insights on writing? Then, click here to read my post on how to become a better writer.

How does a writer feel after composing a bad sentence?

  • “the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion…And especially the paranoia.”
    • “You can be defeated and disoriented by all these feelings…or you can see the paranoia, for instance, as wonderful material.

The problem for certain writers is that they like the idea of being published more than work of writing. Lamott tells her students that they’ll never get to where they want to go with this kind of approach.

  • “Writing can give you what having a baby can give you. It can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of these things…”
  • “Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram..”
  • “…it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do.”

Lamott on facing anxiety and stress when starting to write something new.

  • “What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop.”
    • She lets her mind wander for a little bit. She’ll focusing on her breathing.
      • “It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.”
  • “Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”

Shitty First Drafts

  • Lamott recommends that writers embrace how terrible their first drafts are.
    • “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”
    • “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident.”
    • “We all often feel like we are pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid. The right words and sentences just do not come pouring out like ticker tape most of the time.”
  • Writing isn’t “rapturous” for Lamott and other writers she knows. Only way to get anything done is to write “really, really, shitty first drafts.”
    • “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”
  • “Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t – and, in fact, you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.”

Perfectionism

  • “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.”
  • Lamott highlights that there are benefits to having clutter.
    • “Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you can still discover new treasures under all those piles…”
      • “Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get.”
    • “What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here – and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”
  • To overcome perfectionism, it’s important to be kind to yourself.
    •  “I doubt that you would read a close friend’s early efforts and, in his or her presence, roll your eyes and snicker. I doubt that you would pantomime sticking your finger down your throat. I think you would say something along the lines of, ‘Good for you. We can work out some of the problems later, but for now, full steam ahead!’”

“If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days – listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off.”

How to know if you’re done

  • “What happens…is that you’ve gone over and over something so many times, and you’ve weeded and pruned and rewritten, and the person who reads your work for you has given you great suggestions that you have mostly taken – and then finally something inside you just says it’s time to get on to the next thing.”
    • There’s always “more you could do, but you have to remind yourself that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”

“Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.”

Compassionate Detachment: looking at yourself as an outside observer that assumes you mean well.

  • “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.”

Why it’s important to practice reverence and openness to the world as a writer:

  • “This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of – please forgive me – wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.”

“To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass – seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.”

“If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing, that you lose interest or faith in them along the way, it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care about passionately.”

Get Yourself Involved With Your Writing

  • Must put yourself at the center – you and what you believe to be true or right
  • “The core ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.”
  • “If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal.”
    • “Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent and fraudulent.
      •  “Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it.”

“To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.”

“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”

  • There will be a lot of mistakes, things to edit out and other things that need to be added.
  • You just aren’t always going to make the right decision and that’s okay.

Lamott calls the incessant chatter in our minds Radio Station KFD. It’s always on and never stops.

  • Developing awareness of this station and following your breath is how you can start to quiet it.

Lamott on writer’s block

  • “The word block suggests that you are conscripted or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.”
    • “The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. 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.”   
  • Take some time to refill and live life if you’re feeling blocked.
    • “To live as if we are dying give us a chance to experience some real presence.
      • “Time is so full for people who are dying in a conscious way, full in the way that life is for children.”
      • When you start to prioritize just living your life, “the process of filling me back up with observations, flavors, ideas, visions, memories” can begin.

Finding your voice

  • Trying to write like another author is like using a prop that isn’t yours. Eventually you’ll have to give it back. “And it just might take you to the thing that is not on loan, the thing that is real and true: your own voice.”

Be a giver when you approach writing.

  • Think about how what you write will serve the audience you’re trying to reach.
  • “We are wired as humans to be open to the world instead of enclosed in a fortified, defensive mentality. What your giving can do is to help your readers be braver, be better than they are, be open to the world again. One does not need to be optimistic to in order to do this.”
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