Book Review: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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I started Bird by Bird months ago when I decided to come out as a writer. In the meantime, I’ve been doing more writing than I’ve been doing reading about writing, which is probably a good thing. Not quite every afternoon this summer, but close enough, my husband and I can be seen in the window of the local coffee shop writing. Writing 2,000 words at every sitting, I now have a large and unwieldy draft of something that’s over 100,000 words. And scary.

As I was writing, I was telling myself, this is the hard part. Getting down a draft. You have to make yourself sit in the chair and write, and promise each day not to read back over what you’ve already written. Just relentlessly forward. I’ve never written that way before, or at least not fiction, and it was horrible while I was doing it, and looking back, incredibly liberating. The easy part, I told myself, will be the editing. Ha, ha, and ha. Because now that I’ve started re-reading, I’ve discovered that I’ve spent most of the summer writing 100,000 words of crap.
Enter Bird by Bird, whose first couple of chapters propelled me bravely back into writing back at the beginning of this whole process a few months ago. Yes, this is not about publication! Yes, this is a way of life! Yes, I’m doing this! And so, after having done 100,000 words of crap, it was good to go back to Lamott’s perfect little book. Yes, Bird by Bird is about writing, but also it’s about living, because the two things are inevitably connected.

I didn’t have a pencil in hand while I was finishing the book in the last couple of days, but if I did, I probably would have underlined every other sentence. It’s chocked full of that much wisdom. And some very useful writing advice, but also meaty tidbits to help you through your day. Pretend that everyone you meet is waiting in the emergency room with you, because we are. We’re all orphans; we’re all trying to survive the unique crappiness of our own particular day. If you can surface above the drowning ocean of your own crappiness to take a look around you, this is a readily apparent fact.

Be as easy on yourself as you are on your friends. I’ve read this and heard this lots before. I’ve actually said this to my friends. And yet just this morning I found myself engaged in a self-flagellation over my morning and my behavior. Would I berate a friend for the same behaviors? Of course not. Stop treating yourself as if you’re unworthy, or at least, less worthy than all your friends.

Now, for the past week as I’ve started actually reading back over the 100,000 words, I turn to my husband every half hour or so and say, “I’ve written 100,000 words of crap.” And my husband, kind and wise man that he is, says, “You’re probably not written 1,000 words of crap, but maybe. It’s a first draft. The important thing is that you’ve written 100,000 words. And that’s the first step.” And I ignore him, because he’s my husband. But when Anne Lamott says the same thing, it glows with writerly type truth.

I love Anne Lamott’s voice. I love that she’s not afraid to show us her ugliness, and to make us laugh at it. I’m not typically a laugh-out-loud at books type of person, but this book made me laugh quite a bit. For example, “Having a baby is like suddenly getting the world’s worst roommate, like having Janis Joplin with a bad hangover and PMS come to stay with you.” So true and so funny. I love the way she talks about getting to know your characters, letting them reveal to you what they should do and say. I love that she writes a whole chapter on jealousy, something that I struggle with and not at all in the writerly sense. I love the metaphors she uses for writing. Radio Station KFKD (K-Fucked) is the voice inside your head that is at times full of self-loathing, and at other times full of a lot of equally useless puffing up. I love the way she makes connections between what it means to be a writer and what it means to live a good life. I love her idea that writing can be about more than trying to get published, make money and be famous. Also, writing can be a gift to someone, to your dying father, your children, your favorite authors. I like to think of my writing as a gift to all the people who ever told me that I should write: my parents, my teachers, my next door neighbor. Writing can be a gift to the universe at large. I love this book because it gave me the courage and extra boost to keep on reading through my 100,000 words and feel that its worthwhile regardless of whether it is now crap and it stays crap forever.

As you can see, I love this book. So let me just end by giving you the last paragraph, where she’s making her final go at explaining why writing matters, regardless of whether you are ever published or not:

            “So why does our writing matter, again,” they ask.
            Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

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