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Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 30, 2011
Category: Self Help

I was talking to an artist about why artists have it easy.

“Nobody knows how to paint,” I said. “But everybody knows how to write.” 

Sounds facile. But it’s true.

When it comes to writing, everybody’s an expert — because, at one time or another, everyone had to write a term paper or a 300-word short story.

And, most of all, everyone writes dozens of e-mails a day.

Write enough e-mails, you may actually think you’re a good writer.

And, maybe, you are.

As I used to tell my writing students, "Write half a million words, and then we’ll know if you have real talent."

Then again, you may still suck.

Or, to be more accurate, you may write more and write better — but still not be half the communicator you could be. 

This is a problem. More and more of us need to write — maybe not stories and novels, but reports that keep readers awake, speeches that avoid cliché, whatever. Who can help us? Well, real writers. 

"Writing is energy," Jimmy Breslin, the Pulitzer-winning columnist has said. "If you got the energy, it’ll show on paper. “

Energy is compressed thought, delivered with punch. Hmm….thought? Yes, writing starts with an idea. If you have a point-of-view, T.S. Eliot reportedly said, you’re halfway there.

You can dip into lots of books and tease out the instructions that apply to you, or you can take the easy way to learning about writing — you can read "Bird by Bird," Anne Lamott’s much-cherished 1994 guide to writing. Or, to use her subtitle: “some instructions on writing and life.” Because, as it turns out, they go together — your writing comes out of who you are, what you’ve experienced and believe and dream of. (To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. To buy the Kindle edition, click here.

Anne Lamott is a great teacher. She doesn’t hide; her writing is all about her. But she’s so conversational, so committed to making a connection, that her writing is all about you as well. She’s like Penn & Teller. She does the trick, and then she shows you how she did it and then, damn if she doesn’t dazzle you again. (As in this line about a basketball player scoring a goal in the Special Olympics: “The crowd roared, and all the men on both teams looked up wide-eyed at the hoop, as if it had just burst into flames.”) 

We write for all kinds of reasons. Lamott is a writer’s daughter. Always read, and thus, always wrote. When her father was diagnosed with brain cancer, she did the expected thing — she wrote a book about his dying.  

Her first lesson: “Good writing is about telling the truth.” That’s easier when you’re writing about your dying dad than when you’ve got to dredge the thoughts and feelings out of your all-too-human, oh-so-confused psyche. You think: Good writers do this as a matter of course. Not so. And here Lamott is doing you a great favor — she spends lots of time assuring you that writing is hard and that even good writers turn out sucky first drafts. 

Don’t worry about the plot, she advises; worry about characters, because nobody likes a writer/narrator with a bad personality. Pay attention! Take notes! Believe in yourself! 

The title? It comes from some advice her father gave her brother when he had to write a school report about birds. The kid couldn’t figure out a way to do it. His father said: “Bird by bird, buddy.” His daughter expands on that advice, cheering you on as she shows you what’s important. As a result, well before you finish the book, you’re feeling as if you just chugged a double espresso — awake and alert and full of ideas that you just can’t wait to hammer into writing you can be proud of.