Wednesday, May 1, 2013

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott - Book Review

[Note: This review was originally published on April 27, 2011, on]

4/5 -  A satisfying read that’s worth every word.

Title: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Anne Lamott

Format: paperback



Publisher:  Anchor Books

Landed in my hands:
purchased myself

(from the cover blurb):

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”


Today I’m offering up a little something different for perusal. Non-fiction. Not a place I’ll be delving very often, but this is a book that had first been recommended to me, oh, ten years ago or so, and I’m a lazy ass who takes forever to get to non-fiction recommendations it’s taken me this long to seek it out. I’ve finally come to a place in my life where I not only needed to read Bird by Bird for my creative sanity, but I needed to read it for my soul.

The subtitle says it all: some instructions on writing and life. Lamott has poetically put forth a writing manual that not only gives excellent insight into the writerly condition — anecdotally painting the same situations and insecurities I know I, myself, have felt viscerally — but she also manages to gently tap the glass of the window into the soul. Lamott simply and elegantly describes the human condition, and that mutual need we all have to be understood, to be special, and to be heard.

As a writing handbook, it has wonderful tips on allowing those shitty first drafts, on observing everything around you, and on the importance of cheerleaders. While I disagree with the statement that "nothing is as important as a likable narrator" (I'd argue an interesting narrator is an excellent substitute — I'm sorry, but Vladmir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert in Lolita was anything but likable), there are many other gems that rang true for me. Overall it describes discovery writing more than outlining, though it does touch on the importance of working structure. There are excellent jump-start ideas for blocks, and delightful anecdotes and metaphors for process, and inspiration, and attitude. There’s also a healthy dose of humanity and humour.

It's stories from someone who's been in the trenches.

One of my favourite passages illustrates perfectly the writer’s slow progression into paranoid insanity from being solitary.

[Research] is one great reason to call around. Another is that if you make the phone call while sitting at your computer, you can consider it part of that day’s work. It’s not shirking. Being a writer guarantees that you will spend too much time alone — and that as a result, your mind will begin to warp. If you are in a small workspace, your brain will begin breathing and contracting like the sets in Dr. Caligari. You may begin showing signs of schizophrenia — like you’ll stare at the word schizophrenia so long that it will start to look wrong and you won’t be able to find it in the dictionary and you’ll start to think you made it up, and then you’ll notice a tiny mouth sore, one of those tiny canker sores that your tongue can’t keep away from, that feels like a wound the size of a marble, but when you go to study it in the mirror, you see that it is a white spot roughly as big as a pinhead. Still, the next thing you know — because you are spending too much time alone — you are convinced that you have mouth cancer, just like good old Sigmund, and you know instantly that doctors will have to cut away half of your jaw, trying to save your miserable obsessive-compulsive head from being cannibalized by the cancer, and you’ll have to go around wearing a hood over your entire face, and no one will ever want to kiss you again, not that they ever really did.

I love it.

Bird by Bird is honest. It’s relaxing. It’s quirky. It’s charming. It flows. It’s as if Lamott were whispering secret truths about writing in your ear, sharing humanity and weakness, and in that quirky vulnerability, lending strength. It’s a heartening read, probably for anyone, but especially for writers. She gives writers permission to be insecure, permission to be courageous, permission to be human.

Without going into details, I was lucky to have found this book when I needed it. Perhaps it found me.

Thank you, Ms Lamott, for writing this book. The writer in me thanks you, and my soul thanks you, as well.

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