Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Laila for putting this book back on my radar.  I finally found a used copy at a great bookstore over the weekend and was thrilled to bring it home with me.  And this is the one I’ve been waiting for.  For me, this was the perfect book on writing and I just know that I’ll be returning to it over and over.
This is actually the first book that I’ve read by Lamott, even though I follow her on Twitter and adore what she does there.  By reading this, I just completed a master writing class from one of the funniest people in the business.  The last few months have been really hard, so it was great to be howling with laughter again.birdbybird2
This is not an instructive volume, so if you’re looking for advice on getting published and writing brilliant works of art then it’s not for you.  In fact, she argues in a very honest way that most of us are never going to be published, but we should still write what calls to us.  But this book is an inspiration.  You know that feeling when you realize, “Ahhh…. these are my people…”? Isn’t it the best feeling in the world?  To not feel crazy and alone with all of your little eccentricities?  Well, I walked away with that feeling and was motivated and comforted.
She reminds us that there are no shortcuts – you show up and you write every day.  You watch people and think about who they are every day.  You scribble little things down in your notebooks (or, in her case, index cards) every day.  You do a little bit of work every day and then, over time, you’ve done a lot of work and it might just look a little bit like you were hoping it would.
Her illustrations of trying to show up to your keyboard are right on the mark.  Even if you have no interest in writing, you will recognize the procrastination that she describes with great candor and good-heartedness.  YES!  Everyone has been there — sitting at your computer, working away, and then remembering that time you had a foot fungus in seventh grade and all of the girls in the locker room pointed at it and laughed.  And then you’re back to work and that discomfort in your chest reappears because the back of your brain is focused on that time you called that boy by accident and had no explanation for what happened.  Okay, I’m substituting my worry thoughts that sneak in when I’m trying to work on something, but don’t despair: her worry thoughts are WAY worse and so much funnier.  But she also has some good advice for working past the things that get in the way, so you won’t just wallow in all of your self deprecation but will recognize that, look: these things happen.  They happen to everyone.  Find a way to climb over the distractions and just keep going.  You can do it.
I could have underlined a hundred lines in this book, but I utilized my restraint and only marked a few that were near the end.    One that stands out is in the chapter titled “Writing a Present.”  She talks about how personal and raw novels can be and how some people might judge her or think that she’s being too “confessional.”  Her response is simple and perfect:
“But what these people think about me is none of my business.”
That sounds so much like the advice my dad has given me so many times.  People are going to react negatively to what you do, no matter what.  But if it’s something that brings you joy, feels important to you, and isn’t hurting anyone: then do it.
And the last bit of advice of hers I want to share is in reference to being accused of libel.  If one of your (vile) characters is based on someone in real life and they are not happy about how they’re being portrayed, there could be  lawsuit headed your way.  But if you change just enough about that person so that the inspiration becomes murky, then you should be okay.  But when in doubt, give that character a very small penis.  No one will come forward and claim that it is them.
By the way, nonfiction: check!  One of my goals for the year was to read six nonfiction books and I am on pace!

6 Replies to “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”

  1. I’m so glad you loved this! I read it years ago in a creative writing class. Since then I’ve read everything she’s written and I continue to think she’s a treasure, although I prefer her nonfiction to her fiction. I recently reread Traveling Mercies and it’s just a gem.

    1. Ahhh!! Okay, I’m going to look for Traveling Mercies. I wasn’t sure where to start with her fiction. I also want to read Operating Instructions – it sounds like something I could use! ha!

  2. I’m so glad you loved this! I read it years ago in a creative writing class. Since then I’ve read everything she’s written and I continue to think she’s a treasure, although I prefer her nonfiction to her fiction. I recently reread Traveling Mercies and it’s just a gem.

    1. Ahhh!! Okay, I’m going to look for Traveling Mercies. I wasn’t sure where to start with her fiction. I also want to read Operating Instructions – it sounds like something I could use! ha!

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