Bird by Bird has become a classic in literature about writing. It’s been on my to-read list for years, but for some reason I just kept putting it off. Finally, I read it, and I am already excited to read it again. I’ve already recommended it to a few of my clients and friends. So now I’m recommending it to you.
The book is set up like Ms. Lamott’s writing class; her goal is to tell the reader everything she knows about writing. It is at once uplifting and painfully realistic about the writing process and getting published. The title comes from some advice that Lamott’s father—also a writer—gave to her brother. When overwhelmed by a report about birds that he had to write, his father told him to just take it “bird by bird.” That’s what Lamott reminds us to do: take writing one small step at a time. Here are some of the tips I found most helpful or inspiring:
- “Start with your childhood.” Lamott repeats this several times throughout the book, so…I think she means it.
- Set small goals. “All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.” When the vastness of the information you have to convey weighs down on you, this reminder is helpful. This is the “bird by bird” idea.
- “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really sh*tty first drafts.”
- “A person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable. I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I.” I love this point, since, as I’ve discussed before, my favorite characters are often the ones who share my bad habits.
- ABDCE: Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending
- “Each [character] must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you; each one must have a self.”
- “As you learn who your characters are, compassion for them will grow. There shouldn’t be just a single important character in your work for whom you have compassion. You need to feel it even for the villain—in fact, especially for the villain. Life is not like formula fiction. The villain has a heart, and the hero has great flaws. You’ve got to pay attention to what each character says, so you can know each of their hearts.”
- “If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing, that you lose interest or faith in them along the way, it may be that you there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately. You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.” I find myself doing this often; I start a story, then give it up because, well, what sounded like a cool idea at first seems to fall rather flat after a while. This happened to me during NaNoWriMo.
- “There are probably a number of ways to tell your story right, and someone else may be able to tell you whether or not you’ve found one of these ways.” YES! This sentence summarizes what I see as one of my primary roles as an editor.
- “I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it.”
- “I remind myself of this when I cannot get any work done: to live as if I am dying, because the truth is we are all terminal on this bus.”
- “You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.”
There’s so much more to this book as well, but you really need to read it for yourself if you’re interested at all in writing. This book will hurt your ego, make you laugh, bring you down to earth, inspire you, and challenge you. Lamott makes it clear that if you’re serious about writing, it will be the most taxing and the most rewarding thing you do with your life. But first, you need to write.