Three Books on Writing: Bird by Bird

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March 23, 2014 by carlywont


I hate to be that blogger that starts out every new post by apologizing for the embarrassing length of time that has passed between the previous post and the present day, but here I am. Sorry world.

Excuses: Well, part of me wants to say—It wasn’t you, it was me, Bird by Bird.But the truth is, it was both of us. I’ve been repeatedly bitten by a big, fat, juicy fiction bug lately and have been reading novels like crazy. I also underestimated how hard it would be on my attention span to read three books on writing in a row, especially since they’re more or less similar in content (at least so far).

Bird by Bird was also just not as gripping as I expected it to be. I thought I’d be blown out of the water by Anne Lamott’s wisdom and that this would be my favorite piece out of the three books I chose to read on writing. While Anne Lamott is certainly cleverer than Natalie Goldberg, I just didn’t have the same urgency to finish this book as I had with Writing Down the Bones.

The used version of the book I have also has someone else’s annotations all over it and frankly, the stranger who owned it before me was kind of an annoying dumbass. I dreaded turning each new page and seeing a new iteration of nonspecific (and unnecessary) praise (“Beautiful!” “I love it!” “Cool!”) written in loopy handwriting in the margins.

At one point in the book, Anne Lamott recommends that you should “own your childhood.” The previous owner crossed this out angrily and wrote, “Ignore dialogues of control” next to that line. My guess is she was probably just in the midst of a really mind-blowing women’s study course at the time, but I was almost too annoyed to focus on Lamott’s legitimate advice.

Anyway, back to the book. This book is great for writers who:

  • Need help getting started and are looking for a few good tips
  • Think publishing is the be-all, end-all of writing and need a dose of reality
  • Have a dry sense of humor

And now, my three favorite pieces of wisdom found within Bird by Bird:

1. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

I couldn’t agree with this paragraph more. I struggle a lot with control and perfectionism in life (and in writing) and this piece of advice really reminded me to just let go sometimes. I should probably read this paragraph at the beginning of every day or use it as an affirmation to repeat to myself while looking in the mirror like crazy people who are trying to lose weight do with phrases like “I love myself,” and “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.”

2. “You need to be moving your characters forward, even if they only go slowly. Imagine moving them across a lily pond. If each lily pad is beautifully, carefully written, the reader will stay with you as you move toward the other side of the pond, needing only the barest of connections—such as rhythm, tone, or mood.”

I really appreciated that Lamott wrote about plot. Goldberg didn’t really touch too much on how to make a plot actually happen. I find that I often get lost in the descriptions and loveliness of the words when I write and then at the last minute I’m like, shit, something has to actually happen in this story. Lamott’s chapter on Plot revealed that the best approach to plot is through character development. I found this piece of advice relieving, inspiring, and unintimidating.

3. “You seem to want to write, so write.”

Word, Anne Lamott. Word.

Before I go, let’s take a moment to appreciate Anne Lamott’s crazy Coolio-inspired hair:




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