"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, which 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.'”
They say to never judge a book by its cover, but I’ll admit, I always do. At first glance, the title led me to believe that it would be a very exact play-by-play of how to navigate life and writing. Alas! I was eager for someone to finally lay it all out for me–I’ve been fumbling along for quite some time now.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott is both inspirational and totally soul-crushing. It’s painfully gruff, brutally honest, and yet, somehow, wildly encouraging. A printed paradox.
Ms. Lamott shares her successes and failures, the things that make her tick, and the way she witnesses the world. She often refers back to the students she has taught these lessons to, bringing her readers into that intimate space. The electric undercurrent of it all is that she encourages her students, and all writers, to just do the damn thing.
Put the words on the page. Be brave, be courageous, and tell the truth. Make mistakes. Scrap the whole thing. Start again. Get through the shitty first draft and craft something honest, with purpose, and leave nothing on the table. And always, always have someone to read your drafts.
As unapologetically as Anne presents the ugly, she offers sidesplitting humor, and slivers of encouragement alongside. Reading her words feels like a breakthrough when my inner monologue has decided I’m a terrible writer and I’d be better off as an alpaca farmer. It’s as though an old friend has come alongside me and given me a supportive shoulder hug. While gently shaking me, she says “it’s not all that bad, hang in there”.
Anne, rather bluntly, addresses the mountains and craters that writers find themselves traversing throughout their careers. As a writer, I often find myself staring at blank pages willing the words to arrive, hoping that by a stroke of genius (or perhaps lightning), I’ll have a masterpiece written on the first go. I know otherwise now and feel much less alone. A sigh of relief.
She sternly reminds us that as writers, our passion is truly a laborious one. That we love a difficult thing, a moody, tempestuous thing, and that rarely does it come easily to anyone (who knew?). Writing requires that we stare our insecurities squarely in the eye, and swing anyways.
For aspiring new writers and those with years of experience, Bird by Bird is an unapologetic reminder that writers must write. It does not matter why, whether it be for business or pleasure. We must write. Bird by bird.
This is Kaitlin's take on our book club book last month: hear Amy's perspective here.
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