As a young man trying to become a better writer, I’ve received many bits of advice from people along the way: “Don’t be afraid to create, because there is no wrong in creativity.” “Writing is all about the process, not the product.” “You do know you need money to pay bills and writers don’t have money, right?” And so on. But one piece of advice I’ve heard multiple times is that the key to becoming a better writer is to read. The more you read, the more good writing you come across and the more you learn about writing. It makes sense. So for quite some time now I’ve been feverishly reading novels one after the other and while I do feel like I’m learning it never feels like concrete lessons, just sort of ephemeral bits and pieces to take away and incorporate into my own writing.
That is until I read Anne Lamott’s classic Bird By Bird. My father, the greatest enabler of my writing habit, gave me this book full of writing advice and it urged me to write immediately. It is comical, smart and direct, which for me is helpful because the lessons are clear and it is advice worth listening to. What is most effective is that it is one writer talking to another writer about writing, straight up. Nothing gets in the way. Plus it’s just a delightful read.
Just the basic principle of the book is useful in writing, and in life for that matter. The title, Bird By Bird, stems from a personal story that occurred in Lamott’s life, some thirty years prior when she was a child. Her brother had a report on birds due the next day but was overwhelmed by the monstrosity of the task, so many birds to research and catalog he thought he would never finish. As Lamott writes, “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.’” That is a fantastic approach to writing. Whatever you are trying to write as a whole might be so intimidating you think you might as well never even try. Why start that novel if you’re never going to finish it? But, if you listen to Lamott and go bird by bird you’ll get that novel done eventually and have fun doing it.
That’s the major lesson to take away from Bird By Bird, so major in fact it’s quoted on the back cover of the paperback. It forms the basis for the rest of the advice to build on, and the book is full of many more nuggets of writing wisdom. Lamott breaks it down into four parts: Writing, The Writing Frame of Mind, Help Along the Way and Publication, and Other Reasons to Write. Each of these has its own chapters, which reveal one more part of the writing process, and by the end you realize Lamott has broken the always-elusive “process” down into discernible parts of a whole. And for me, I felt better about my writing process after going through it bird by bird with Lamott.
Lamott begins her book with the first thing she tells students at the start of a class, which is “good writing is about telling the truth.” From that point on, Lamott shows the reader what it takes to arrive at the truth and how to convey truth through writing. It’s one thing to just tell the reader what is good and what is bad, but Lamott goes a step further and shows us how to get there by providing often funny, sometimes sad anecdotes, writing exercises and personal strategies that work for her. Not all of these will work for every writer, some may not work at all, but that’s the beauty of advice: listen to it all, but only take from it what you need.
What’s more though, is how Lamott’s book about writing is more than just about writing, it’s about life in general. I found myself applying many of the little advice nuggets she dishes out to other aspects of my life and if I apply them correctly, they will make me a more wholesome, better satisfied human. I just have to take my self-improvement one day at a time, bird by bird.