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.