Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Say you’re reading John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and you find that he says that our taste in literature is conditioned by “the nature of our mortality” (55). Weird. You check the cover, and there it is indeed: the art of fiction. The comment seems out of place. Now say you’re reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (New York, 1995; 238 pp.), also a book on writing, and you come across this sentence: “My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free” (125). Reaction: oh, okay, nice insight. The difference is context. And the subtitle of Lamott’s book: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
Those last two words you must bear in mind when you read the book. Bird by Bird is one of most unusual volumes on writing, and also one of the most enjoyable. On the first half, Lamott goes through some of the most salient features of craft: character, dialogue (“One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t” ), plot (“Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT” ). She does this briskly and with a great sense of humor. Let me emphasize the part about humor: you’ll chortle on the couch at some points.
But what makes Bird by Bird distinctive as a book on writing craft is that it blends writing with life. It is not a writer’s memoir, like, say, Haruki Murakami’s, nor is it a series of arguments on literature spiced with anecdotes, like Margaret Atwood’s. As serious as Lamott is about writing—and she is, very—the book focuses on life as much as it does on writing. That should be even more precise: life, understood through the prism of spirituality, is Lamott’s priority.
Two things to clear up. First, this book is not about writing as spirituality or religion (a theme I’ve mentioned often on the blog, and to which Lamott alludes when she says a friend of hers “converted at eighteen from Christianity to poetry” ). Instead, Bird by Bird is about a kind of spirituality in which writing plays a part. Lamott is very religious, and is not diffident to show it. You’ll find God mentioned at least every two pages, and spiritual experiences and references throughout. But that leads me to the second thing to clear up: we should not confuse religious with reactionary. Lamott is puritanical only insofar as she advocates discipline in a writer, and is conservative only insofar as—no, she’s clearly liberal and ecumenical. We learn a lot about her as we read Bird by Bird because, as I said, anecdotes abound.
What kinds of things does she share about life that should interest writers? The perils of jealousy, for instance: “Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and the most degrading” (124). The problem with writer’s block, which is not cured by milking yourself more strenuously, she says, but by acceptance: accept that you’re not in a creative mood, and turn to some of the other things life offers until you’re ready to write again (178).
There’s also publication, which is not, Lamott emphasizes, a panacea: “if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy” (214). Heightened public exposure will probably translate into heightened anxieties. With more money, come commitments that are more expensive. And so on. Publication, she says, is not heralded by joyous trumpets, and it does not put an end to the real drudgery of writing: you’ll have to face the blank page again for the next project.
The real pleasure, she says, should come from the very process of writing. From the possibility to grasp truth, those secrets that are unexposed until a writer dares to expose them. From the joy of assembling things, starting with a “shitty first draft” (21) and up to a finished piece, through countless revisions involving dismal periods of self-doubt. And, as much as that should be the priority, and much more important that publication, it is good to keep things in perspective. What about the joy of writing? Lamott says, “good hours at the desk are as wonderful as any I can imagine. But joy for me is Sam [Lamott’s son] and my church and my buddies and family and more often it is felt outdoors than at my desk” (215).
It is difficult to find a book on craft that is as different from, say, The Writer’s Little Helper or other volumes that are career-oriented and almost stolidly methodical in their approach to writing. So, if you’re dismayed by how much marketing and business are colonizing the experience of writing, Bird by Bird will come as a very amusing antidote.