Writing might seem like an impossible challenge. Perhaps you assume that writing comes naturally to all successful authors, and you wonder why your writer’s block feels so insurmountable. In this book review, author Anne Lamott shares her accessible (and often funny) wisdom for getting your ideas onto paper. By taking your writing project one step at a time, you can turn a daily hour of writing into a completed piece. The more you write, the more you’ll discover its many hidden benefits.
Anne Lamott explains how to write and why you should.
READ THIS BOOK REVIEW IF YOU:
- Are interested in the strategies of a successful author
- Suffer from a creative block and need inspiration
- Wonder whether improving your writing can also improve your life
Bird by Bird is a classic guide to writing and living a writer’s life. From her unique perspective, novelist and memoirist Anne Lamott explains with wit and honesty her approach to writing and how you too can find the discipline, commitment and focus necessary to hone your craft.
Yet Lamott shows that becoming a good writer doesn’t mean just establishing a solid routine; it means slowing down, observing your world keenly and looking deep within yourself and your surroundings for material.
In the following book summary, you’ll learn how to find your true writer’s voice and create unforgettable characters that come to life in your stories. And with this, you may become the great writer you have always wanted to be.
In this summary of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, you’ll also discover
- how to deal with and destroy the dreaded “writer’s block”;
- why writing a “shitty first draft” is so important; and
- how to find your true voice as an author.
When offering wisdom for the writing process, Anne Lamott likes to recount a story from her childhood. She remembers when one of her brothers had to write a report on birds, but he put off starting until the night before the assignment was due. That night, he sat at the kitchen table, dwarfed by many stacks of dense, ornithological volumes, and couldn’t write a single word. Lamott’s father gave him this sound advice: Just take it bird by bird.
Lamott uses this same basic approach to her work. When writing starts to feel too daunting, step back and break your novel into simple steps. You don’t need to have perfectly complex characters or an engaging narrative arc when you begin. Just take your project one step at a time.
How to Get Started
The best writing strives to tell the truth. If you want to write but don’t know how to get started, begin by telling your truth. Start with your earliest childhood memory and go from there. Write about how much you loved the sandbox in preschool, or the territory wars that ensued with your peers. Describe your inability to master the proper technique for opening your carton of chocolate milk in the grade school cafeteria. Write about your junior prom — or the time you stayed home sulking because you couldn’t get a date to junior prom.
When you’re getting started with your writing, the content doesn’t really matter, nor does the quality. When you’ve finished describing whatever you can remember from childhood, you’ll probably be stuck with page upon page of self-pitying or self-aggrandizing drivel, and you’ll wonder why you ever thought your memories of scraped knees and drunk uncles were worth putting into words. This feeling is completely natural and normal.
During this climax of self-loathing, try to be gentle. Remind yourself that it’s not the many pages of garbage that really matter. What matters is the single paragraph in which you describe the neighborhood of your youth with the tiniest bit of poetic artistry. You’ll rediscover this snippet and realize that you actually enjoyed writing this bit. You’ll feel re-energized when you read it, and perhaps that small paragraph will inspire a new story idea.
Writing isn’t always as glamorous and thrilling as you hope. It’s not a matter of divine inspiration: All you need to do is grit your teeth and push through your paragraphs. Your initial work might not be brilliant, but it will point you in the next direction. A boring description of your childhood might turn into a decent short story or a poem that’s worth reading.
To get the words out, try to turn your writing into a routine. The habit of sitting down to write at the same time every day will spark your creative juices. You won’t waste time chasing your creative muse; instead, your muse will get into the habit of meeting you for coffee at the same time and place each morning.
First Drafts and Perfectionism
Once you finally get past your tendency to procrastinate and put a few real paragraphs on the page, you’ll probably be disappointed to discover that your first draft is garbage. Before you let panic set in and destroy your interest in writing, remind yourself that all writers write awful first drafts. Even published authors, who are enviably prolific and negotiate six-figure deals, don’t sit down to write and unleash a steady stream of perfect prose. Your first draft will always be bad. It helps to remember you don’t have to show your first drafts to anyone. They’re just where you start. Second drafts will improve on the first, as will the third and fourth. Writing will be more enjoyable and approachable if you make peace with the fact that your first drafts won’t be winning any Pulitzers. Once you free yourself of that pressure, you’ll be free to write.
Perfectionism is usually the culprit that prevents you from writing your first draft. Perfectionism is the fear of mess and clutter, which is everything that a first draft contains. To bang out that first draft, free yourself from the burdens of perfectionism in two ways. First, build yourself a God. Try out an Abrahamic savior who lets you off the hook for your imperfections and tells you that you’re acceptable even though you make bad art. Or worship an accepting, generous weirdo like David Bowie or Mr. Rogers. Find an artistic authority who gives you permission to be your messiest, strangest self.
If you don’t have the stomach for theology, free yourself from perfectionism by being a better friend to yourself. Consider your own friends: They might be flakey, whiny, or bad at holding their liquor, but you choose to hang out with them anyway. See if you can view yourself from the same charitable perspective. Talk to yourself with compassion instead of incessant judgment. If you can learn to accept (and perhaps even like) yourself despite your flaws, the pressure to be perfect will gradually ebb away, and you’ll have the freedom to get writing.
Polaroids: Characters and Plot
Writing a first draft is like watching a Polaroid picture develop: The process is slow, and you won’t always know where it’s going right away. It’s important to give your first draft a healthy amount of wiggle room. You might begin with the idea of writing a short story about a con man and his newest scheme, but suddenly, you discover that you’re caught up in your con man’s backstory, specifically his relationship with his mother. Maybe your adventure story is turning into a family drama — that’s a completely acceptable evolution. Let your story go where it wants to go and don’t put too many constraints on it.
Characters are also like Polaroids. Good characters are always complicated, and as you write, you’ll learn more and more about what makes your people unique. Remember that everyone on this planet has a backstory: a crazy dream, embarrassing moment, sad parental relationship, or memory of winning a big race. Get curious about your characters and give them the full history they deserve. Was your protagonist a jock or a theater nerd in high school? How did they vote in the last election? Does a phone call from their mother help them relax or make them long for a cigarette? All these details probably won’t make their way into your actual story, but they help you understand how your character behaves. Like all people, a character’s actions and experiences come out of their history and personality.
Above all, stay open to your characters. Don’t force a character to kidnap a child just because you want to write a thriller that could potentially become a movie starring Liam Neeson. Characters aren’t pawns who simply help you create whatever story you want to see. Any plot that you impose on a group of flat, boring characters will lead to a flat, boring story. When your characters make choices that feel forced and disingenuous, your story will suffer. To avoid this fate, get to know your characters and remain open to them.
As you write, you’ll begin to sense the authentic path that your characters want to take, so make sure they have permission to do so. Plots are the natural consequence of complex, multidimensional people. If you spend enough time writing about who your protagonist is — where they grew up or how they feel about the 2016 presidential election — the action will eventually build. Identify your character’s biggest problem. Figure out what they care about and what’s at stake.
The author Alice Adams recommends the ABDCE formula for story structure: action, background, development, climax, and ending. Begin with some initial action that pulls your reader into the story. Then, take a step back to illustrate who your characters are, why they’re here, and what they were doing before the action began. Then, develop your characters: their relationships, resentments, tensions, dreams, and fears. All these pieces build to the climax, the big event that will somehow change your main characters. Finally, your ending reveals how your characters have changed. How is life different? Have their values shifted? What did the story mean for them?
When all else fails, your work and writing process will be more enjoyable if you can create a likeable narrator. Note that likeable and perfect aren’t necessarily the same thing. If a narrator is interesting, you’ll go anywhere with them. For example, consider your best friend. They might be hilarious and witty, and they somehow manage to turn a mundane afternoon on your couch into a rib-cracking affair. You’d go with them to put gas in the car or help them watch paint dry because of their uncanny ability to make daily minutiae seem engaging. Make a narrator who’s just as magical.
In your quest for dialogue that brings your stories and characters to life, begin by reading your words out loud. Allow yourself to hear the cadences that are too clunky or the lines that feel too on-the-nose. When you’re out in the real world, away from your writing desk, listen to how people really talk. Use that data to make authentic characters.
Remember that you should be able to identify your characters based on what they say and how they say it. Treat your characters like real people with their own personal narratives, histories, and idiosyncrasies. The way a person talks can be an elegant window into their character, so work at developing their distinctive mannerisms and opinions.
When working on dialogue, give yourself the challenge of putting together two characters who despise each other. Perhaps two people have been avoiding one another for decades thanks to a divorce, a terrible argument, or a traumatic childhood experience. Suddenly, they’re stuck in an elevator together. The result is a tense situation in which each character feels a lot of emotions but doesn’t know what to say.
Remember that most people are always holding something back, so allow your characters to be the same way. Watch them suffer the agony of walking on eggshells and try to figure out how they’d respond to this awkward situation. Do they make a bad joke, or do they sweat profusely and stink up the elevator? What do they say to hide what they’re truly feeling? Let them walk the fine line between holding back and dropping hints about their feelings.
How to Know When You’re Done
The completion of your work won’t necessarily be an obvious moment. The clouds won’t part, nor will the angels cry when you reach the final page of your millionth draft and type “The End.” The finish line usually isn’t obvious.
Lamott claims that finishing your piece will be like tucking an octopus into bed. You’ll manage to get a few arms under the covers just as two more pop out. You’ll finally feel satisfied with your story structure, only to realize that your dialogue is flat. You’ll develop a complex relationship between two characters and discover that your subplots don’t make any sense. You’ll write many drafts, seek out readers to give you feedback, and rewrite your scenes. After a certain point, you’ll become too tired to keep going, and you’ll simply realize that it’s time to move on to something else.
In this moment, you’ll tell yourself that you can’t possibly be finished because your story isn’t perfect. When this voice creeps into your brain, remember that perfectionism is your enemy. You’ll never complete anything if you hold it to a ridiculously high standard. Make peace with your imperfections and congratulate yourself on doing the very best you could.
All writers, even the ones who sell prose and poems that bring you to your knees, have moments (or days) of writer’s block. Everyone gets bored with their work or struggles to figure out what to do next.
When you’re feeling too agitated to get a word down, force yourself to churn out a few pages. They can be about anything. You can write about how much you hate writing, or you can describe how bored you feel. You can describe the knick-knacks on your desk, or the many household chores that you’re avoiding. Think of this as exercise: Even if your writing isn’t good, you’re still keeping your creative muscles in shape. And who knows — your rambling paragraphs about the paperweight on your desk might inspire something more interesting.
Some people write because they want to be published. They assume that publication will make them into a real writer, heal every wound, and help them have the feelings of worth they could never quite summon.
It’s true that publication feels good. It’s a form of acceptance by your peers, and it might give you the feeling that you’ve found a place to belong. But publication is an unlikely fate that doesn’t happen for most writers. And even if you do get published, that won’t make the task of writing your next piece any easier. Publication won’t heal your self-hatred or make you love yourself. It won’t fill a void or give you a sense of value. Only you can cultivate self-validation, so don’t put the burden of self-actualization on your publishing prospects.
In fact, don’t write because you want to get published. Write because you love to write and allow the work to be its own reward. Writing helps you see the world in a new light. As you pay attention to how people talk in order to learn to write better dialogue, you’ll discover how delightfully funny and weird people can be. As you get lost in your feelings of empathy for your characters, you’ll learn how to feel for real people, too. After you spend an hour digging into your narrative structure, you’ll feel genuinely satisfied in your work. These are the rewards of writing. Allow them to be enough.
Becoming a good writer means writing about everything that happens to you and around you.
While there’s no secret formula to becoming a good writer, there are some essential steps.
The first step is learning how to relax, stand apart from people and observe closely.
You know the kind of people you notice standing in the corner at a party, watching everyone? Good writers are a similar breed: they often choose to distance themselves from the crowd, observing everything they see, and take notes.
The writer’s job is to articulate what she sees and experiences. This requires an ability to relax and focus so that nothing escapes her notice. It’s important not to rush the process, or force anything.
In other words, you have to learn to pay attention. Take time to observe everything around you: the curious gait of a stranger, the unique way the morning light catches a lover’s profile, how thinking about a childhood memory makes you feel.
There’s another reason that observing and noting your world is critical in becoming a good writer. The best writing is about conveying the truth; the observations you collect will help you to tell it.
Whether you believe that your observations will make good material isn’t important. Your main task is to try to find the truth in what you’ve observed, and figure out how to use those observations in the story you want to tell. That way, the truth will naturally find its way into your writing.
Don’t be afraid to draw on past experiences as your main material. For example, take the time to reflect on and write about childhood and other memories. After all, as a writer, you’re lucky enough to look at life in any way you want to. You can turn over events in your memory like fallow earth, digging for the truth that is buried deep within them.
Taking a trip into your own memory bank is justified as long as you make sure to look carefully and write from your own viewpoint as truthfully as you can. Thus you need to examine your self in the same way you examine everything around you.
To find your own voice, you have to be honest with your reader.
If there’s one thing critics agree on when it comes to defining a great writer, it’s that the writer has a “voice” – a unique style that includes not only the details of a story but also how it is told.
The only way you can develop your own voice is by being honest with the reader about your true feelings.
You cannot discover your authentic voice without opening some emotional doors and facing the truths behind them. That is your main role as a writer: to discover and confront whatever feelings those doors are hiding and to articulate them in words that reflect the truth of your feelings.
This principle holds true even when you’re feeling profound grief or toxic anger. The only way to ensure your voice reflects those emotions is to face them and accept them during the writing process. You need to do this especially when you feel something holding your words back: for instance, if your feelings are too private or too painful to examine closely.
To accept your feelings you have to be present in them – in other words, to be fully aware of how you feel at any given moment. If you avoid your emotions, or if you merely think about them without fully entering and being present in them, you’ll never be true to yourself or your voice.
When you are present in your feelings, you come to understand that your reality – made of all your experiences and emotions, both good and bad – is very much your home. It’s a comfortable place to be, and you can be your true self there.
Once you accept this, you’ll begin to feel comfortable with yourself and the full spectrum of your emotions – and you’ll be on your way to finding your own writer’s voice.
Have faith in your ability to write, even when you think you’re not doing a great job.
Another thing that all good writers have in common is that they don’t worry about whether they’re good writers!
If you believe with every fiber of your being that you should write, just write. With time and practice, you’ll eventually become good at it.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it will be easy. There will be miserable days where you’ll stare at a blank page for hours. But there will also be days when everything clicks and the words just flow.
The main thing to remember is that every day has something to offer, if you’re patient and determined enough to see it.
For young writers, this kind of faith is useful. Even though you may not be a good writer from the start, you may become good one day if you persist.
Along the way, you may also develop a real yearning for the act of writing, the same way that someone might yearn to play sports or music. By having faith that you’ll become a good writer, the frustration of not writing as brilliantly as you believe you can will be replaced by the sheer love of the act itself.
Another way that faith is crucial to writing is that writers have to believe in their position – whatever they’re writing about. If you don’t believe in your words, nobody will.
How do you generate such belief? Make an effort to understand life, and to care about it, as deeply as you can. That entails also taking a long, hard look at the banalities of life and not just the big, dramatic events.
Write about everything that’s important to you. Only then will you feel connected with your story and be able to find the right words to describe it.
To become a good writer, establish a daily writing routine.
A common assumption about writers, and all artists, is that they work only when inspiration strikes.
Yet all good writers follow a strict routine. If you want to become a better writer, you should do the same.
Why? Because routine means discipline, and discipline means success.
First, find a place to write and go there every single day, even if you’re not always productive.
Second, go to your place to write around the same time every day. By doing this, you ensure that your unconscious mind is ready to yield creatively when you arrive.
When you first establish this process, you might feel a little bored and perhaps won’t be able to do any writing at all.
Eventually you’ll notice your routine is having a positive effect. You’ll begin to clear a mental “writing space” to prepare yourself for the creative work necessary to good writing.
The idea behind the routine is to make writing a daily habit. Though there’ll be times when you struggle to write, your routine will train your creative energies to kick in at the right time every day.
However, even routine and discipline won’t necessarily make you a great writer. Remember: there’s simply no secret formula to writing well.
Yet it’s crucial to understand just how important commitment is to your work. Commitment, along with routine and discipline, is essential to your success as a writer.
The author admits that no secret was passed down through her family to help her to write well. She was given no password that allowed her to “crack the code” of good writing.
Rather, by thinking about all the good writers she knew, the author came to realize that they were all incredibly committed to their work and disciplined about their routine.
Writing is very similar to meditation: you have to quiet your mind so you can hear your inner voice. Establishing a daily routine, and sticking to it religiously, makes this possible.
So far, you’ve seen what it takes to become a good writer. In the following book summarys, you’ll learn all about the steps involved in writing a book.
Don’t be afraid of shitty first drafts.
Many people think that good writing springs fully formed from the writer’s imagination. If you’ve ever written even a college paper, you’ll know this isn’t true: nobody writes an elegant first draft.
All good books are the end result of a series of increasingly good versions, beginning with the roughest formulation of one’s ideas – or, as the author calls it, the “shitty first draft.”
Even the most seasoned writer can find it difficult to accept how poor their writing is at this stage. It’s important, though, that all writers not only accept the shitty first draft as merely a point of departure, but also embrace this stage of the process.
The shitty first draft is the perfect opportunity for you to let your imagination wander and play with ideas.
Don’t overthink your writing at this stage – just write. Thinking too much can be counterproductive, blocking your creativity and frustrating you to the point that you may even give up.
Instead, enjoy it! The first draft is where you can get dirty, rolling in your own mud, freed by the knowledge that you can clean up the mess later. No one can judge you by your first draft, so just use it to dump everything you have onto the page.
Once you’ve produced that shitty first draft, you can begin to edit: the process of developing your piece, refining its focus and improving the writing.
Consider the second draft as the “up” draft, because you’re fixing it UP. Think of the third draft as the “dental” draft, because it involves poking and prodding at the writing in the same way that a dentist examines your mouth, checking the condition of each and every tooth.
A good way to think of the whole process is to imagine you’re watching a story reveal itself through successive drafts, like watching a Polaroid picture slowly develop.
Get to know your characters well; your story’s plot and dialogue flows through them.
Every good story has memorable characters, and every aspiring writer wants to know how to create them. So how do you create unforgettable characters?
To create great characters, you have to get to know them. Then, once you understand them, your job as a writer is to bring them to life.
Every character, like every real person, owns an emotional acre. Think of it as a space where everything that makes up your personality – your wants, hates, needs and loves – grows or develops.
In your story, it’s important to get a sense of each character’s emotional acre. Ask yourself: What is my character growing on his acre? What is blooming, what is dying? What condition is the land in?
Next, take a more detailed look: What are your characters doing? What happens to them?
You can’t be too protective of your characters. You have to let bad things happen to them. If they live an ideal existence and behave flawlessly, your story will be mundane and flat – like everyday life.
Finally, you have to find the voice of your characters. One way to do this is to model a character’s personality on someone you know in real life, as this will give your character a “true voice.” This is essential because – as readers – we want to believe that fictional characters are telling us the truth.
Bringing characters to life also means allowing plot and dialogue to emerge from them. To do this you have to understand them. From this understanding, your plot and dialogue will develop naturally.
Consider how your characters would talk to each other in various settings – like on a train or at the mall. Come up with challenging situations for them, and imagine how they would react.
Remember that dialogue can reveal more about a character than a lengthy description. This doesn’t refer only to what characters say, but also how they say it – their diction, pace and speaking style.
Finally, to create good dialogue, read it aloud to check how realistic it sounds and pay attention to how real people talk. Listen closely – are they using their words correctly? What distinguishes the way they speak?
Pay attention to details to create the atmosphere of your story.
If you’ve ever been engrossed in a novel, you know how important details are to storytelling. Because details make a story more tangible and believable, a writer uses details to bring a reader “inside” her story.
One important detail is your story’s setting. A good setting can bring your story to life, making the world of your characters more three-dimensional.
As a writer, you have the ability to tailor any setting to fit your story and characters.
For instance, a forest setting in which a crime occurs will certainly be depicted using more sinister, darker details than a sunny, verdant forest in which a happy family has an afternoon picnic.
The private settings of characters can reveal much about them, too. The character’s relationship with his space can illuminate certain aspects of his personality. For example, if a character spends his days idly wandering through his enormous house, this might suggest he’s a wealthy man.
Great details can make themselves known at any time, so a good writer keeps her eyes open and carries a notebook at all times to jot down details that may come in handy when writing.
But just what sort of details? If you’re at a grandiose mansion for an event, for example, note how many steps there are on the main staircase, or figure out how long it takes to walk from one end of the mansion to the other. Then you can make your wealthy character’s lonely ramblings real.
Attending to details can help mold the structure of your story. Often, when a writer wants to check that his narrative or plot flows well, he’ll write a plot treatment – a detailed list of everything that happens in each chapter of the book.
When you produce a treatment, any missing details or illogical bits of your story will become obvious to you. For example, if a character dies in the first chapter but returns to save the day in the last, you’ll realize you’ve got a problem – unless, of course, you’re writing about zombies.
Shitty first drafts, memorable characters and vivid details can help you to write well. But what happens when you hit an obstacle in the writing process?
When you hit writer’s block, back off and take a breath so you can find your confidence.
It happens to every writer: suddenly, you simply have no idea of what to write. In other words, you’ve been struck with writer’s block.
The feeling of being creatively empty can be debilitating, much like shame and frustration. Fortunately, though, there are things you can do to get through this.
The first step is accepting that you’re blocked. Just admit to yourself that you’re just not in a creative mood at the moment.
Yet also make sure you stick to your established routine, and write at least a single page each day – no matter how terrible or difficult the task of constructing sentences may feel.
Ultimately, what will get you through the block is your confidence – that is, the knowledge that soon, you will be able to write again. In this way, confidence is like a supporting pole that keeps you upright.
But what happens when you lose your confidence and your inspiration?
This is a tough situation. But you can regain your confidence by listening to your intuition and trusting yourself. Try to stay calm, still your mind and breathe – and listen to your intuition. By not panicking, you’ll stay connected and will eventually get yourself back on track.
Don’t forget, however, that if your intuition is telling you that the story you’re blocked on is simply not good, you still have to observe and respect that information.
Writer’s block can stop a truly great story from ever being completed. Sometimes, however, you’ll find yourself blocked – struggling because the paragraph, chapter or story you’re working on is just poor.
So, how can you know for certain whether you should struggle through or allow yourself to let go? Only your intuition can guide you.
Look at your weaknesses with humor and generosity, and then write about them.
We all deny our own feelings. For writers, especially, denying one’s feelings can result in a great loss, since the value of what we feel is in what we learn from those feelings.
This is true even when it comes to potentially dangerous feelings – like jealousy.
For a writer, being jealous of other writers is risky and potentially degrading. There’s simply nothing positive to gain from it; it only makes you paranoid, miserable and lonely.
Whether you pursue writing as a career or as a personal goal, jealousy might be a familiar feeling. For instance, if your best friend’s book is published to rave reviews while yours founders at Chapter 6, you might get jealous and decide not to talk to that friend. Yet if you let these negative feelings grow, they might expand to include all writers, and eventually even to you and your own writing.
This is how incredibly toxic jealousy is: if you allow it to fester unchecked, it will poison your personality and your writing life.
Whatever your feelings – whether jealousy, misery or fear – don’t shy away from them. Instead, turn your writer’s eye toward them and try to describe the beauty hidden within. Fully experiencing your feelings and capturing them in words will help you grow both as a writer and as a person.
Of course, confronting your feelings is difficult. Things like love, pain and loss can be extremely difficult to spend endless time with.
But in the end, when you face your emotions you’ll feel stronger and, eventually, you’ll rediscover your sense of humor. Crying and laughing are two sides of the same coin, and with time, what seemed the end of the world might end up being one of the more poignant moments in your life.
As a writer, you can use all these emotions to explore certain characteristics in yourself and in other people – and then give them to your story’s characters.
Find the right people to talk to about your work.
The world is full of stories. There are so many people out there waiting to share their own, looking for just the right writer – like you. All you have to do is talk to them!
Of course, writing is usually a solitary endeavor, and for that reason many writers end up isolating themselves.
Try to avoid this in your own writing life. After a long stretch at the desk, grinding away at your work, you may begin to show signs of dissociation – to the extent that you can’t distinguish reality from fiction.
Don’t wait until you reach this point to reach out to others! Instead, seek inspiration in other people’s lives. For example, you could spark up a conversation with a stranger while you’re taking a break in the park; their story might inspire you. Who wouldn’t want the chance for their own story to be told?
Another way to gain inspiration from the “outside world” while you’re writing is to share and discuss your work with other writers.
If you don’t have any friends who write, you could join a writing group. Creative writing classes and writing workshops allow you to discuss your work with other people living a writing life.
But be careful: some of these groups have a reputation for being ruthlessly critical, and your work might be torn to shreds, both by instructors and fellow writers, which could shatter your confidence.
So when you feel the need for attention and you want a professional opinion about your work, try to find someone who can be both supportive and constructively critical.
Being a good writer is more important than being published.
Why is it that so many writers are obsessed with being published?
Certainly, writers need readers. No one wants to write in a vacuum.
Writers also want affirmation of their talents. For many writers, though, the desire to get published, find an audience and, ultimately, enjoy wide acclaim can turn into an obsession.
And if you expect that getting published will bring you fame and wealth, you’ll be quickly disappointed.
If you’re lucky, your book will be published, you’ll get a handful of favorable reviews, some people will come to see you at a reading, and your agent might send you flowers.
But, most likely, you won’t get famous or rich from publishing your book.
The most important thing to remember about publishing is that if you’re not a good writer before being published, you won’t be a good writer afterwards either. Being published doesn’t make you a good writer.
However, getting published means you’ve achieved something that every writer wants. It also means that the writing community is applauding you, saying that you did a good job.
In the end, what matters most is the journey you travel while writing – both the process of putting words on a page and the personal and emotional transformation you experience while practicing your craft.
Think of getting published then as a special treat. Your real reward for all that hard work is getting to live a writer’s life – achieving some small goal every day and caring deeply about your work. When you think of it that way, being published is merely a tool to help you gain readers, and nothing more.
And in the end, writers choose to do what they do because reading and writing expands their sense of life and feeds their soul.
Writing might seem like either a glamorous career or a terrifying assignment. It might make you lose yourself in daydreams of success and fame, or it might increase your blood pressure. The good and bad news is that writing isn’t as sexy or as awful as you might think.
Writing is the simple business of sitting in your chair each day and churning out a few pages. You might not get published or make any money, but when writing becomes a daily practice, it enriches your life in unpredictable ways. Don’t let your perfectionistic anxiety or your high ambitions get in the way of the real work. When writing itself is your reward, your work will be the best it can be.
The key message in this book:
Becoming a good writer means learning to be a good observer, taking notes on everything that happens in your life, and seeking to express the truth. It also requires discipline, which is best nurtured by establishing and sticking to a daily writing routine. Once you’re in the flow of writing, don’t be afraid to produce “shitty first drafts,” as this is the most fruitful way to begin a project.
Don’t escape your feelings; examine and use them in your work.
If you want to be a good writer, you can’t avoid your emotions. You have to confront them so that you can present your feelings as truthfully as possible in your writing. But it’s not enough to just think about your feelings. You have to truly feel them. While this can be painful, many writers find that the experience of writing about their feelings often soothes any pain that arises.
About the author
Anne Lamott is the author of several fiction and nonfiction titles. She’s the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a former columnist for Mademoiselle. She has also taught writing at UC Davis.
ANNE LAMOTT is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Almost Everything; Hallelujah Anyway; Help, Thanks, Wow; Small Victories; Stitches; Some Assembly Required; Grace (Eventually); Plan B; Traveling Mercies; and Operating Instructions. She is also the author of seven novels, including Imperfect Birds and Rosie. A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.
Biography, Memoir, Creativity Writing, Self Help, Essays, Reference, Crafts, Humor
Table of Contents
Writing. Getting started
Shitty first drafts
How do you know when you’re done?
The writing frame of mind. Looking around
The moral point of view
Radio Station KFKD
Help along the way. Index cards
Someone to read your drafts
Publication and other reasons to write. Writing a present
Finding your voice
The last class.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • An essential volume for generations of writers young and old. The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of this modern classic will continue to spark creative minds for years to come. Anne Lamott is “a warm, generous, and hilarious guide through the writer’s world and its treacherous swamps” (Los Angeles Times).
“Superb writing advice…. Hilarious, helpful, and provocative.” —The New York Times Book Review
For a quarter century, more than a million readers—scribes and scribblers of all ages and abilities—have been inspired by Anne Lamott’s hilarious, big-hearted, homespun advice. Advice that begins with the simple words of wisdom passed down from Anne’s father—also a writer—in the iconic passage that gives the book its title:
“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.’”
Think you’ve got a book inside of you? Anne Lamott isn’t afraid to help you let it out. She’ll help you find your passion and your voice, beginning from the first really crummy draft to the peculiar letdown of publication. Readers will be reminded of the energizing books of writer Natalie Goldberg and will be seduced by Lamott’s witty take on the reality of a writer’s life, which has little to do with literary parties and a lot to do with jealousy, writer’s block and going for broke with each paragraph. Marvelously wise and best of all, great reading.
“Superb writing advice. . . . Hilarious, helpful, and provocative.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A warm, generous, and hilarious guide through the writer’s world and its treacherous swamps.”
—Los Angeles Times
“One of the funniest books on writing ever published.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“A gift to all of us mortals who write or ever wanted to write. . . . Sidesplittingly funny, patiently wise and alternately cranky and kind—a reveille to get off our duffs and start writing now, while we still can.”
“Bird by Bird would be worth reading just for Lamott’s ele- gant, moving, and often-hilarious prose. But the advice she offers is just as fantastic as the style with which it’s delivered.” —Forbes
“Anne Lamott understands better than anyone that writers need help. . . . She writes so well, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that she, too, has trouble with writing. That’s what’s so deeply comforting about this book.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Deftly and honestly explores the mental challenges of being a writer. . . . Lamott’s advice is, simply put, invaluable.” —Bustle
“[Lamott] uses her writing exercises or lessons as a way to help us more deeply understand ourselves and the human condition in all its messiness. If you’re looking for sense-making and meaning during this deeply destabilizing time, this book is timeless.” —Elise Hu, TED Talks Daily
“Delight[s] with insight and descriptive acumen. This humorous, insightful, no-nonsense approach will remind novices why they are writing.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Offers unique inspiration. . . . An honest appraisal of what it takes to be a writer and why it matters so much.” —Library Journal
“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.'”
“Superb writing advice… hilarious, helpful and provocative.” — New York Times Book Review.
“A warm, generous and hilarious guide through the writer’s world and its treacherous swamps.” — Los Angeles Times.
“A gift to all of us mortals who write or ever wanted to write… sidesplittingly funny, patiently wise and alternately cranky and kind — a reveille to get off our duffs and start writing now, while we still can.” — Seattle Times.
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The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out. Year after year my students are bursting with stories to tell, and they start writing projects with excitement and maybe even joy—finally their voices will be heard, and they are going to get to devote themselves to this one thing they’ve longed to do since childhood. But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat. Some lose faith. Their sense of self and story shatters and crumbles to the ground. Historically they show up for the first day of the workshop looking like bright goofy ducklings who will follow me anywhere, but by the time the second class rolls around, they look at me as if the engagement is definitely off.
“I don’t even know where to start,” one will wail.
Start with your childhood, I tell them. Plug your nose and jump in, and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can. Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. Maybe your childhood was grim and horrible, but grim and horrible is Okay if it is well done. Don’t worry about doing it well yet, though. Just start getting it down.
Now, the amount of material may be so overwhelming that it can make your brain freeze. When I had been writing food reviews for a number of years, there were so many restaurants and individual dishes in my brainpan that when people asked for a recommendation, I couldn’t think of a single restaurant where I’d ever actually eaten. But if the person could narrow it down to, say, Indian, I might remember one lavish Indian palace, where my date had asked the waiter for the Rudyard Kipling sampler and later for the holy-cow tartare. Then a number of memories would come to mind, of other dates and other Indian restaurants.
So you might start by writing down every single thing you can remember from your first few years in school. Start with kindergarten. Try to get the words and memories down as they occur to you. Don’t worry if what you write is no good, because no one is going to see it. Move on to first grade, to second, to third. Who were your teachers, your classmates? What did you wear? Who and what were you jealous of? Now branch out a little. Did your family take vacations during those years? Get these down on paper. Do you remember how much more presentable everybody else’s family looked? Do you remember how when you’d be floating around in an inner tube on a river, your own family would have lost the little cap that screws over the airflow valve, so every time you got in and out of the inner tube, you’d scratch new welts in your thighs? And how other families never lost the caps?
If this doesn’t pan out, or if it does but you finish mining this particular vein, see if focusing on holidays and big events helps you recollect your life as it was. Write down everything you can remember about every birthday or Christmas or Seder or Easter or whatever, every relative who was there. Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul. What can you recall about your birthday parties—the disasters, the days of grace, your relatives’ faces lit up by birthday candles? Scratch around for details: what people ate, listened to, wore—those terrible petaled swim caps, the men’s awful trunks, the cocktail dress your voluptuous aunt wore that was so slinky she practically needed the Jaws of Life to get out of it. Write about the women’s curlers with the bristles inside, the garters your father and uncles used to hold up their dress socks, your grandfathers’ hats, your cousins’ perfect Brownie uniforms, and how your own looked like it had just been hatched. Describe the trench coats and stoles and car coats, what they revealed and what they covered up. See if you can remember what you were given that Christmas when you were ten, and how it made you feel inside. Write down what the grown-ups said and did after they’d had a couple of dozen drinks, especially that one Fourth of July when your father made Fish House punch and the adults practically had to crawl from room to room.
Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point at you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We told you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.
“But how?” my students ask. “How do you actually do it?”
You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind—a scene, a locale, a character, whatever—and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched–like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk. There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you have meningitis. Then the phone rings and you look up at the ceiling with fury, summon every ounce of noblesse oblige, and answer the call politely, with maybe just the merest hint of irritation. The caller asks if you’re working, and you say yeah, because you are.
Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.
I wish I had a secret I could let you in on, some formula my father passed on to me in a whisper just before he died, some code word that has enabled me to sit at my desk and land flights of creative inspiration like an air-traffic controller. But I don’t. All I know is that the process is pretty much the same for almost everyone I know. The good news is that some days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it. It is a little like when you have something difficult to discuss with someone, and as you go to do it, you hope and pray that the right words will come if only you show up and make a stab at it. And often the right words do come, and you—well—“write” for a while; you put a lot of thoughts down on paper. But the bad news is that if you’re at all like me, you’ll probably read over what you’ve written and spend the rest of the day obsessing, and praying that you do not die before you can completely rewrite or destroy what you have written, lest the eagerly waiting world learn how bad your first drafts are.
The obsessing may keep you awake, or the self-loathing may cause you to fall into a narcoleptic coma before dinner. But let’s just say that you do fall asleep at a normal hour. Then the odds are that you will wake up at four in the morning, having dreamed that you have died. Death turns out to feel much more frantic than you had imagined. Typically you’ll try to comfort yourself by thinking about the day’s work—the day’s excrementitious work. You may experience a jittery form of existential dread, considering the absolute meaninglessness of life and the fact that no one has ever really loved you; you may find yourself consumed with a free-floating shame, and a hopelessness about your work, and the realization that you will have to throw out everything you’ve done so far and start from scratch. But you will not be able to do so. Because you suddenly understand that you are completely riddled with cancer.
And then the miracle happens. The sun comes up again. So you get up and do your morning things, and one thing leads to another, and eventually, at nine, you find yourself back at the desk, staring blankly at the pages you filled yesterday. And there on page four is a paragraph with all sorts of life in it, smells and sounds and voices and colors and even a moment of dialogue that makes you say to yourself, very, very softly, “Hmmm.” You look up and stare out the window again, but this time you are drumming your fingers on the desk, and you don’t care about those first three pages; those you will throw out, those you needed to write to get to that fourth page, to get to that one long paragraph that was what you had in mind when you started, only you didn’t know that, couldn’t know that, until you got to it. And the story begins to materialize, and another thing is happening, which is that you are learning what you aren’t writing, and this is helping you to find out what you are writing. Think of a fine painter attempting to capture an inner vision, beginning with one corner of the canvas, painting what he thinks should be there, not quite pulling it off, covering it over with white paint, and trying again, each time finding out what his painting isn’t, until finally he finds out what it is.
And when you do find out what one corner of your vision is, you’re off and running. And it really is like running. It always reminds me of the last lines of Rabbit, Run: “his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”
I wish I felt that kind of inspiration more often. I almost never do. All I know is that if I sit there long enough, something will happen.
My students stare at me for a moment. “How do we find an agent?” they ask.
I sigh. When you are ready, there are books that list agents. You can select a few names and write to them and ask if they would like to take a look at your work. Mostly they will not want to. But if you are really good, and very persistent, someone eventually will read your material and take you on. I can almost promise you this. However, in the meantime, we are going to concentrate on writing itself, on how to become a better writer, because, for one thing, becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.
But my students don’t believe me. They want agents, and to be published. And they also want refunds.
Almost all of them have been writing at least for a little while, some of them all of their lives. Many of them have been told over the years that they are quite good, and they want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work, why they have these wonderful ideas and then they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout—the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the hand-washing fixation, the Howard Hughes germ phobias. And especially, the paranoia.
You can be defeated and disoriented by all these feelings, I tell them, or you can see the paranoia, for instance, as wonderful material. You can use it as the raw clay that you pull out of the river: surely one of your characters is riddled with it, and so in giving that person this particular quality, you get to use it, shape it into something true and funny or frightening. I read them a poem by Phillip Lopate that someone once sent me, that goes:
We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.