Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is probably my favorite book on writing, and I’ve read a pile of them. Lamott has a take-no-prisoners, hyper-realistic attitude on writing, so this book is not for the faint of heart; it oozes with proof that A) writing hurts and B) we, as writers, have to suffer a bit to arrive at anything artful on the page. This isn’t a new theme in discourse on the craft, but Lamott’s insights are fresh, practical, and graphic. Writing, she’ll have you know, is “about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.” Pitching your book idea at a conference can feel like “you put your head in the lion’s mouth.” She describes the long, long hours you might sit at the computer without ever typing one good sentence, and the long, long pages you might compose to mine just one idea that has potential for revision. She suggests having a go-to pal who will read your draft and really critique it to pieces, comparing this reader to a man she used to know who would take friends’ animals to be put down when they just couldn’t do it themselves.
But along with the pain and suffering of writers, another theme rises up in Bird by Bird: that writers are not helpless or hapless, and that we can tame writing into a corner… by beating it back with a stick, if we have to. The title is an immediate example; Lamott recalls her father’s advice to her brother when he once began writing a lengthy research paper on birds: “Just take it bird by bird.” Her advice has given me the edge over proverbial writer’s block many times: start with just one tiny thing, just whatever of your scene or character that you can see through a one-inch viewfinder. Start with that, and describe it. And know that the first draft can be bad. Really bad. No one will ever see it but you; let it be bad, who cares? The real writing happens bit by bit, draft by draft. Bird by bird.
Is this stark voice with zero tolerance for sugar-coating disconcerting or uncomfortable? Not in the least. I’m appreciative, more so each time I revisit her words, to have someone tell it to me straight, as if I’m having coffee with a friend whose advice I trust inherently, even when it hurts. I am grateful for the consistent lack of fluff. The ultimate consequence is that when Lamott hits you with pure inspiration, she hits you hard; on noticing details, for example, she says, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” And you know what? There really is.