Review: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

First published in 1995, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is as relevant today as the day it was published. The book has become the definitive how-to guide for new and aspiring writers. The book has been a national best seller and continues to have excellent sales. As of today (5/30/2012), seventeen years after publication it still ranks #512 on Amazon.com’s overall best sellers rank. More amazingly it ranks:

#1 in Books > Education & Reference > Words, Language & Grammar > Speech
#1 in Books > Education & Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Journalism & Nonfiction
#5 in Books > Education & Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Writing Skills

An entertaining and helpful guidebook that covers every step of the writing process, the reading of Bird By Bird has become something of an initiation for hopeful writers. Anne drives home the point of the need for regular writing and facing the fact that getting published will almost certainly not make you more contented, wealthier or good-looking.

Her book’s genesis comes from the notes of the lectures Lamott delivers to her writing classes. The book begins the way all writing classes do – sit down and write. Write, write, and write and the revise and rewrite before you worry about agents, book titles, etc. She reminds us to sit at our computer, bring up our word processing program, stare at the screen and write. She gives practical advice of not looking at the size of the task, but viewing it as a series of small assignments.

Lamott investigates the depths of both the formal elements of writing such as plot, character development, dialogue, setting, point of view and the less concrete but infinitely more injurious obstacles facing a writer, that is acceptance the “shitty first draft” and killing the perfectionist inside you standing between you and your shitty first draft. She talks in practical terms about defeating writer’s block and what to do when you have crises of faith. She talks about finding a sturdy soul to read your “shitty” draft and not being devastated when the reader has more than a few suggestions. She also touches on the subject of learning to deal with professional jealousy, a bound to happen fate “because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know — people, who are, in other words, not you.”

Bird By Bird isn’t all that ground-breaking a book. I have read similar works providing insights on the writing life by authors Annie Dillard and Natalie Goldberg. Yet, ask anyone in the position to make a comparison and more likely than not they’ll say Bird By Bird surpasses all. “What, then, is it about Bird By Bird that strikes a chord with so many readers and writers?” to quote a question asked by reviewer Sarah Brennan.

Anne Lamott’s advice is all harvested from personal experience. Her guidance is so caring and keen and so good-naturedly explained it’s easily employable. I agree again with Sarah Brennan that “ultimately, it’s her uncanny and self-effacing humor, natural, unaffected tone and anecdote-as-life-lesson adeptness that make Bird By Bird such an effective teaching device. Hers is a refreshingly conversational, approachable, enjoyable didacticism that leaves you with the feeling that 1) if you were to meet Lamott, you’re pretty sure you would be instantaneous best friends 2) however far you descend into the pits of frustration, self-loathing and despair, the writing life is worth it.”

Anne Lamott gives us all hope as she shares, “Even if you only show the people in your writing group your memoirs or stories or novels, even if you only wrote your story so that one day your children would know what life was like when you were a child and you knew the name of every dog in town — still, to have written your version is an honorable thing.” It would be fun to sit down for a day and talk and laugh with Anne Lamott.

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