bird by bird


No, not another Twitter post… It’s the book by Anne Lamott.  Here’s what it’s all about:

“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.’ ”

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Bird by bird… three simple words from a writer father.  Lamott carries these words of wisdom with her as she makes her long journey of writing and life.  A past recipient of a Guggenheim, now a national bestselling author and writing instructor, Lamott in turn passes on practical advice to her readers and students.  In a writer’s symposium, it’s mentioned that The Modern Library calls her book Operating Instructions one of the most significant non-fiction work of the century.  Click here for the full hour interview.

Bird by bird is a book full of down-to-earth advice on writing and life from one who has gone through tough times.  Coming from the hippie culture, Lamott had to overcome years of drug addiction, alcoholism, and deal with eating disorder and the challenges of single parenthood.  I admire her resilience and perseverance.  Further, her ultimately finding redemption and had her life turned around was one amazing story.

I’ve enjoyed Lamott’s humour and her sensible instructions, although I admit I couldn’t fully embrace her style of word-use and the occasional trite statements. But the authenticity shines through.  You’re reading a writer who has gone through all these hurdles, not just in writing but in life, and speaking to you with genuine openness.  Her directions give you a kind of ‘eureka’ feeling: The sudden revealing of something that you thought you’ve found it for the first time.  But on second thought, it’s just that she has put it into words for you, you must have known it before, so common sense, so simple.


Since I’ve been dwelling on quotes lately, I’ll just leave you with some of Lamott’s own words from her book.  They don’t all fit into a tweet, but just to point out that sometimes great thoughts take more than 140 characters to convey…. that’s why we have books.  But of course, you’ve known this all along.

Getting started:

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.

Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.

The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published.  They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published… Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.  But publishing won’t do any of those things.

Short assignment:

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  … You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.  This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.


… a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable… They shouldn’t be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.


Plot grows out of character…. I say don’t worry about plot.  Worry about the characters.  Let what they say or do reveal who they are… The development of relationship creates plot.


You listen to how people really talk, and then learn little by little to take someone’s five-minute speech and make it one sentence, without losing anything.

The Moral Point of View:

The word moral has such bad associations: with fundamentalism, stiff-necked preachers, priggishness.  We have to get past that… We like certain characters because they are good or decent–they internalize some decency in the world that makes them able to take a risk or make a sacrifice for someone else.  They let us see that there is in fact some sort of moral compass still at work here, and that we, too, could travel by this compass if we so choose.

A moral position is a passionate caring inside you… Some of us are interested in any light you might be able to shed on this, and we will pay a great deal extra if you can make us laugh about it.  For some of us, good books and beautiful writing are the ultimate solace, even more comforting than exquisite food.

Now here are some quotes you can send, tweet by tweet:

“If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.” [quoting from the movie Cool Running]

Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen, widen, and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.


Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Anchor Books, NY, 1995, 238 pages.

Published by


If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

20 thoughts on “bird by bird”

  1. I enjoy Ms. Lamott’s work as well–and can I recommend another writer on writing, Annie Dillard. LIVING BY FICTION and HOLY THE FIRM should be required reading for those with the souls (and doubts) of artists…


    Annie Dillard is one of my all time favorite writers… and yes, I agree that many of her works are must-read’s. Thank you for stopping by and leaving your comment!



  2. I enjoyed those quotes you’ve excerpted, Arti. The one about driving in the dark reminds me of some things I’ve read about how Diana Gabaldon writes.


    There are many gems in her book, these are just a few… I find that they’re all sensible and practical, for both writing and life. Yes, I really appreciate the one about driving at night, seeing just feet ahead, again, bird by bird…

    Thanks for your input!



  3. Arti,

    I adore this writer and simply love this book for all the reasons stated. I was lucky enough to meet and see her speak at a signing a few years back for a small independent bookstore in Pasadena, California.

    She is as engaging and spirited as her writing. And, yes, it is her passion, conviction and authenticity that elevates her as a writer of wisdom and humor, as well as an astute observer of life.

    It was profoundly poetic of you to use the story of her father and brother to reveal the inspiration for the title. And, to my mind, it was her gift to turn that warm little tale into the title of a book on writing. Thank goodness for Annie Lamott (I can’t help but think of her as anything, but Annie).


    1. Errant Aeshete,

      How fortunate you are to have caught a glimpse of the real person. I’m sure she must be an animated and interesting speaker, considering the humor she has sprinkled into her book. I’m particularly interested in her journey of struggles… I believe it’s in her book Traveling Mercies. Would you recommend that? Bird by bird is my first AL book.

      Thanks for your sharing!


    1. Arti, the other books on writing that I love include Stephen King’s On Writing (like Bird by Bird, this one is mostly about inspiration and motivation for me), Jessica Morrell’s Between the Lines, and Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel (those two are great in terms of improving craft). Seems to me I also loved Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life — been a while since I read that one. I should have another look!


      I’ve read SK’s On Writing and I agree that it’s some sort like BbB, very practical advice. And Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, plus her other books are just great. Yes, it’s time to re-read them all!



  4. Those were good quotations. I’ve resisted reading Lamott because I’ve been worried about the triteness you mention. But I should get past that little prejudice of mine, because a little triteness doesn’t necessarily destroy a book.


    Not your literary and serious work, so I think some triteness is excusable… it’s a good reminder for sure.



  5. Yes! Your eureka feeling with Lamott is so like what I wrote about poems. I love when synchronicity happens like this.

    I like Lamott’s bird by bird image very much.

    My friend Inge and I are having a little writing retreat in a couple of weeks. Inge is always looking for books on writing. Would you recommend it more than something else? I think she already has quite a pile already. Well, I can tell her about it and she will do her little mini-ransack of it at the bookstore. 🙂


    And if she finds it in the bookstore, Inge can always take a look to see if it’s her style of advice. Since she has ‘quite a pile’ already, this could be a quick, casual, and funny chat… yes, it takes a flexible and non-judgemental mindset to appreciate her style and POV. And yes, I love the synchronicity too.



  6. She is VERY animated and her eyes literally sparkle. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen her, but she wears her hair in dreadlocks and it so suits her. I can’t imagine her in anything else.

    I would definitely recommend Tender Mercies and follow up with PLan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Exceptional. Surprisingly, I also enjoyed Operating Instructions.


    1. Thanks for the recommendations, EA and Shari. I sure like to explore more of AL’s writing… have heard a lot of good things about them.

      Also, EA, I’ve seen her interview on Youtube. Have included a link here. There are several other clips there too. Haven’t seen her in person though.


  7. Good to see this “writing” classic featured! Anne Lamott is my go-to when the writing jams, when the world gets layered and muddled. She’s like “comfort reading.”

    She works hard on her writing. And when she reads and looks at the audience and gestures, it all comes together.

    Your potential Tweet quotes are so much fun, I think, from time to time and only momentarily, about signing up for Tweet just to use ’em!

    Is it chilly in Calgary yet? We’re still swimming here but the leaves are tinged with color – yikes!


    Seems like everybody is familiar with AL… except me. I like your description: comfort reading.
    According to the forecast, Calgary will be 31C (88 F) today, wacky weather. But I’m out of town, have been for the last few days. Will post about that next…



  8. I like Bird by Bird too. Her family’s story is remarkable. I liked Traveling Mercies for its honesty– she is not afraid to admit her doubts–but I was not so fond of Plan B. I am not sure why.

    The tweet quotes are great–especially the one about the lighthouse.


    There are lots to quote from in BbB. I’d like to read her TM next. Thanks for sharing!



  9. I loved Bird by Bird. Also Operating Instructions, which was priceless, especially as I read it when I just had my first baby.


    Guess I missed “one of the most significant work of non-fiction” when my son was small… but not too late to enjoy AL now though. Her experience of single parenting must have given motherhood a very different perspective too. Thanks for sharing.



  10. I have the book, and I take it out from time to time when I am writing-lonesome.


    I find its down-to-earth advice both helpful and soothing… just right for the down time. Thanks for sharing.



  11. Arti, I’m intrigued as can be with this post, for a couple of reasons.

    I must confess I’ve never heard of Ann Lamott. Not once. But I was interested to read that she’s come out of the hippie culture. My newest post, just up tonight, is called The Aging of Aquarius, and has to do with the ways my (hippie) generation has learned or must learn to grow itself up.

    What she says about the need for a moral center appeals to me – particularly since it’s very much like what I said myself. It’s heartening to find I’ve come to independent conclusions that are shared by another person who is so highly regarded!

    And that comment about dialogue – taking five minutes of conversation and turning it into one sentence – I can’t tell you the number of times paragraphs have become a sentence, or hours of research have shown up only as a sentence or two. Perhaps that’s part of what makes writing resonate – everything that remains unspoken hangs in the air like the overtones of a tuning fork.

    I really enjoyed this. But I don’t think I’ll run out and get the book yet. I’ll just get back to writing.


    1. I didn’t run out and buy this book either. I found it serendipitously in the used book sale some months ago (yes, my $1 purchases)… and until then, I’d never heard of AL either. Do click on the highlighted links for both her bio and the clip. Her experience in overcoming addiction and having her life turned around is remarkable. And her writing tips, pearls of practical everyday wisdom… worthy to tweet about.


  12. Lovely review, Arti. I have such a soft spot for the honest writer, someone who’s more than ready to show everyone else the journey that’s been taken, and the pleasures and pains it has brought. That honesty is such a key for me to authenticity in writing, and if the writer can make you laugh about the chaos and disasters, then better still. Lamott is great in that respect and I did thoroughly enjoy the book.


    I heard that she’s quite animated too in her interviews, quite a character. Have you read any other books by her?



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