Book Review – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Did you ever feel like giving up on your writing? Do you frequently ask yourself if it’s even worth the effort? Does staring at the blank page on your monitor inspire you to dive right into cleaning the refrigerator? If so, Ms. Lamott must’ve had you in mind when she penned Bird by Bird. While a good work of writing instruction, it’s a stronger book about motivation. What a great choice of subject. That’s something all we writers out there could use more of.

The author selected the title from a personal vignette. As her eloquence far exceeds my own, I’ll let her tell it.

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, which was due the next day…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.” (Pages 18 – 19)

That blurb set the tone for the entire book. Ms. Lamott strived to convince authors they can complete any work; in spite of the myriad obstacles, some self-imposed, that will come one’s way.

The advice I liked the most concerned “perfectionism”. The author described it as an “oppressor.” (Page 28) She went on to call it a “mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend.” (Page 32) She elaborated: “Almost all good writing starts with terrible first efforts.” (Page 25)  I applaud Ms. Lamott’s encouraging writers to not let “mistakes” interfere with their love of the craft.

I also enjoyed her thoughts on publishing. The author used an unusual example to illustrate her point. She referred to the coach of the Jamaican bobsled team in the movie Cool Runnings. He told his athletes, “If you’re not enough before the Gold Medal, you won’t be enough with it.” (Page 218) That’s an appropriate observation. I’m glad the author chose to include it. I always remember something someone told me, “Publishing is a tool for our writing. Our writing isn’t a tool to get published.” Some writers lose focus on that sometimes.

Ms. Lamott emphasized that writers should, in essence, write for writing’s sake. She quoted her students who said they write because, “I will not be silenced again.” (Page 196) While it’s important that artists have something to say with their work, the author cautioned that one must keep that within limits. She mentioned Samuel Goldwyn’s admonition: “If you have a message, send a telegram.” (Page 104)

Bird by Bird primarily served as an inspirational tome; its purpose being to motivate writers to write. The author still included some solid suggestions for those interested in the hard aspects of craft. She encouraged authors to focus on their characters more than plot. (Page 54) She explained that “good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is unsaid.” (Page 67) I appreciated how she clarified the difference between a “moral position” and a “message”. “A moral position is not a message. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you.” (Page 108) Ms. Lamott rounded that out by including a quote from Molly Ivins. “Freedom fighters don’t always win, but they are always right.” (Page 109)

One of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me came from my former manager, Ray Ziegler. In terms of how best to execute a plan he said, “Take away the excuses.” For procrastinating writers, Anne Lamott did just that in Bird by Bird.




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