Book Review: Bird by Bird

I have often recommended the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and thought of it warmly. I was a little surprised, then, when I pulled it off the shelf to do a re-read and a review and my notes and markings stopped about two-thirds of the way through. Hmm… So, I liked the book a whole lot, but I was in a season where I might put down a book and forget to ever pick it up again? I have definitely had those seasons. Right now, I’m in the read-200 books in a year season. Maybe not quite that much. (It is also a season of balking at especially long books—like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell—because of how much I am reading.)

This time I read the whole thing, cross my heart. I can hardly express how much I loved it. A nonfiction book (which most of Lamott’s are), the subtitle is Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It is important that the “life” is left in there, because Lamott just couldn’t help herself. There really is almost as much about how to live life in this book as there is about writing, and despite that she uses much of the same material here that she used to teach years and years of students, it’s not comprehensive. This book is not an A to Z, but more of a single writing class meant for students who have already decided that writing is for them. Newbies preferred, I suppose, but I loved every minute of Lamott’s ranting and raving, her acerbic advice, her seriously acidic outlook and messy life. Messy is too small a word for it, as Lamott uses hyperbole and a type of poetry to portray all the guts of living, and though her message is ultimately hopeful and light-filled, she mainly uses humor to deal with the startling darkness that she finds around her and around us. The book, overall, is meant to convince us that the writing life is not meant for, and can not be for, fame and money. She encourages us, instead, to dig deep, really deep, and to come to terms with all the stuff inside so that we can be honest writers (the only kind of great writer). Writing is about decreasing isolation and writing from our experiences in a child-like way.

Not to give it all away, but it’s not really a writing manual, though she does deal with some practical things here, too. The book is broken into four sections: writing, the writing frame of mind, help along the way, and publication. And there is plenty of advice, but at times it feels less like a series of classes and more like a continuous drip of memoir and surprise. And humor. I really did laugh out loud repeatedly, which may mean I have a darker sense of humor than some or that I have been there, lady, both in life and as a writer. There was one passage where I lost it, I laughed like a maniac and then couldn’t catch my breath. Sometimes you need a laugh, you know?

I like this book for knocking some sense into aspiring writers (though they probably won’t believe it). I like this book for more seasoned writers to relate to. I like this book for teaching some important creative writing lessons. And I like this book for sheer entertainment value, especially if you can appreciate the stink of life along with redemption and a sort of bleak sense of humor. I will now be moving this book up in my estimation, though as a teaching book there is no big bang at the end or an increasing tension or anything. It is what it is all the way through, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

ANNE LAMOTT’S OTHER BOOKS:

Novels:

  • Hard Laughter
  • Rosie
  • Joe Jones
  • Blue Shoe
  • All New People
  • Crooked Little Heart
  • Imperfect Birds

Nonfiction:

  • Operating Instructions (memoir)
  • Some Assembly Required (memoir)
  • Traveling Mercies (essay collection)
  • Plan B (essay collection)
  • Grace (Eventually), essay collection
  • Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
  • Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair
  • Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace
  • Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy
  • Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
  • Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage

QUOTES:

“…you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk” (p7).

“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” (p19).

“So I’d start writing without reigning myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move” (p24).

“I walk along defending myself to people, or exchanging repartee with them, or rationalizing my behavior, or seducing them with gossip, or pretending I’m on their TV talk show or whatever” (p26).

“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting every stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die” (p28).

“…there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this” (p51).

“A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way” (p52).

“But whatever happens, we need to feel that [the book ending] was inevitable, that even though we may be amazed, it feels absolutely right, that of course things would come to this, of course they would shake down this way” (p61).

“Nothing like a supercharged atmosphere to get things going” (p67).

“You have to move your hand across the paper or the keyboard” (p72).

“If you look at people and just see sloppy clothes or rich clothes, you’re going to get them wrong” (p97).

“The plot leads all of these people (and us) into dark woods where we find, against all odds, a woman or a man with the compass, and it still points true north. That’s the miracle” (p106).

“…if we sit [at the desk] long enough, in whatever shape, we may end up being surprised” (p111).

“Some of us tend to think that what we do and say and decide and write are cosmically important things. But they’re not” (p115).

“Money won’t guarantee these writers much of anything, except that now they have a much more expensive set of problems” (p124).

“I like to think that Henry James said his classic line, ‘A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,’ while looking for his glasses, and that they were on top of his head” (p133).

“…you don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it, too” (p156).

“It helps to resign as the controller of your fate. All that energy we expend to keep things running right is not what’s keeping things running right” (p180).

“But the fact of publication is the acknowledgement from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you’re a published writer, and you are in that rare position of getting to make a living, such as it is, doing what you love best. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy” (p215).

“…good hours at my desk are as wonderful as any I can imagine. But joy for me is Sam and my church and my buddies and family, and more often it is felt outdoors than at my desk” (p215).

“When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader” (p225).

“You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words…” (p231).

“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining” (p236).

“[Writing i]s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea” (p237).

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