Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Published in Australia in 2008 by Scribe. First published in 1994, 237p
Bird by Bird is my first Anne Lamott reading experience; and probably because I had no expectations it simply fascinated me. It is well-written, very honest, delighting by its simplicity of style and intensity of thoughts. Bird by Bird is part memoir, part a friendly guide on how to become a writer and how to experience life with joy and wisdom.
The title is inspired from a story in her family; when she was young her brother had to write a report on birds for school; although he had three months to write it, he only started the night before the due date and shortly began to panic. Their father put his arm around the shoulders of Anne’s brother and said: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird”. The piece of advice stayed with Anne for her whole life. Although she started to write when she was very young, about 7 or 8 years old, and her first stories were terribly bad, she took writing and life piece by piece, making mistakes but persisting:
Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.
All her instructions come from her life experience, some are funny, others speak about struggle and despair but they are all motivating and honest. When her books were turned down Anne felt humiliated and empty and found refuge in alcohol but she understood it was part of her formative experience – she became stronger and better.
Lamott’s perspective on books and writing is simply beautiful. Addressing to all those who admit to have demons and doubts she encourages perseverance on crafting one’s writing (and not dreaming of becoming published but focusing on the process of writing itself, on the complexity of the characters rather on the plot) and good reading.
Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life – wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you? I ask.
Anne comes from a family of book lovers. Her father, Kenneth Lamott was also a writer and Anne remembers how most nights after dinner her parents used to sit on the couch and read. She wrote her first novel after her father was diagnosed with brain cancer. Writing was exhausting, often a desperate attempt to express the most honest and profound feelings but she tried to understand life before sharing her most personal experiences.
In her opinion, a good narrator should be like a close friend (a logical reason why we resonate with some authors and reject others):
I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I. Preoccupation with self is good, as is a tendency toward procrastination, self-delusion, darkness, jealousy, groveling, greediness, addictiveness. They shouldn’t be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting. I like for them to have a nice sick sense of humour and to be concerned with important things, by which I mean that they are interested in political and psychological and spiritual matters. I want them to want to know who we are and what life is all about. I like them to be mentally ill in the same sorts of ways that I am; for instance, I have a friend who said one day, “I could resent the ocean if I tried”, and I realized that I love that in a guy. I like for them to have hope – if a friend or a narrator reveals himself or herself to be hopeless too early on, I lose interest. It depresses me. I don’t mind if a person has no hope if he or she is sufficiently funny about the whole thing, but then, this being able to be funny definitely speaks of a kind of hope, of buoyancy. Novels ought to have hope; at least, American novels ought to have hope. French novels don’t need to. We mostly win wars, they lose them. Of course, they did hide more Jews than many other countries, and this is a form of winning. Although as my friend Jane points out, if you or I had been there speaking really bad French, they would have turned us in in a hot second bank on it. In general, though, 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.
Wise and warm, Bird by Bird speaks to all those who are willing to experience life by allowing themselves to make mistakes and learn from them, by keeping their faith and by never ceasing to observe the world.
Complement Bird by Bird with Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wave in the Mind, a collesction of essays on the writer, reader and imagination and Susan Sontag’s Reborn, her early diary that reveals her intimate thoughts on education, marriage and sexuality.