Title: Bird by Bird
Author: Anne Lamott
Genre: Writing Advice/Memoir
*Note: On occasion, I would like to offer a different sort of review. Rather than simply saying how much I like a story, I would like to look at a specific element of craft (such as characterization, pacing, or point of view), how the book fits into a series as a whole, or even how a film adaptation relates to its book–and which I liked better. The “Letter to the Author” series of reviews is exactly what it sounds like: I have written a letter to the author as if we were in the same room together and I could share my experiences reading their novel with them. A little less formal and a little more focused on my emotions as a reader, rather than plot, characterization, or other craft choices. Below is the inspiration for this series: one of my very first assignments at the Stonecoast Creative Writing program. It was originally written in February of 2013 for my then mentor, Sarah Braunstein. I have made some minor changes before posting it here:
Dear Ms. Lamott,
I recently finished reading your book Bird by Bird for the second time. The first time I read it I was 19 and in undergraduate school. I have to admit, I did not like it the first time around. At the age of nineteen, most of the life lessons you talked about learning were beyond my ability to truly connect and empathize with. The rest of the book–the words that covered blatant writing advice–was also difficult to engage with. It seemed to speak primarily of dealing with the difficulties of a writer’s life rather than the tips I wanted for making the road to publication easier.
However, after having the book recommended again, this time by my graduate school, I felt that it was time for me to revisit you. I am more than ten years older, have had many more successes, as well as many truly difficult times. My writing has more depth and breadth, and I have realized how much I still have to learn. I no longer view writing as a hobby, but a craft that is necessary for me to be me. In short, if my outlook on writing had changed, perhaps I would get more from your book this time around. And so I revisited Bird by Bird.
Now that I have finished your book, I find that it was more than worthy of being recommended time and time again. You addressed insecurities I had but had been unable to crystalize or share. You not only gave labels to my anxieties, but tips on how to get around them as well. And there were brilliant, beautiful phrases and thought-provoking insights into life. In short, you intimidated me. As I turned page after page, I grew more and more fretful about how I would write this letter to you. What could I, as a beginning writer, discuss with you in a way that wasn’t already something you had thought of or heard from someone else? Even if I have been writing since I was in second grade, I have only been purposefully honing my craft for a year.
But then I remembered some of the things you said in the introduction of your book. On page xx you wrote “…I luxuriated in books. Books were my refuge.” and on page xxvi you pointed out that “Writing turns out to be its own reward.” And then later, on pages 26 and 27, at the end of your chapter on shitty first drafts, you talked about the different voices in your head. There was a “vinegar-lipped Reader Lady” and an “emaciated German male” and even “parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion.”
Even though it resonated with me, the import of these paragraphs did not sink in immediately. When it did, I realized that when you boil us down to our most concentrated form, the substance that is left is the same. And once I realized this was the case, the distance between us become almost non-existent and the paranoia that was raised at the thought of writing to you melted away.
This, perhaps, turned out to be the greatest lesson I got from your book. Each writer may write in a different genre, with a different voice, using a different set of rituals and methods to get the job done, but when it’s all said and done, we are the same; we are a community of people joined by a common passion and we all have something to give to the community, whether we are a rookie or a veteran.
During the course of the past year, as I have devoted myself to my writing, one of the things that I have been putting a great deal of my effort into has been writing every day. As I’ve endeavored to accomplish this goal, I have noticed that I have a hard time writing without stopping to edit as I go. While many of the craft books I read this year stress that you should write now and edit later, none of them had said it as bluntly and clearly as you did.
It wasn’t so much the idea of shitty first drafts themselves (although the bluntness with which you stated the idea makes it humorous and easier to remember during the writing process). Instead, it was what followed that really brought the idea home: “All writers write [shitty first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” (pg 21). To be able to think about Stephen King or my mentors or Jules Verne having shitty first drafts reinforces the idea that I am not alone. I am not the only writer who hates their first attempt at making a wonderful idea into reality. It always makes me feel better to realize I am not alone and, in this instance, it even helped me put my internal editor off until I am ready to unleash her.
Later on you share the way a friend looks at the various drafts. The first draft is “…the down draft–you just get it down,” the second draft is “…the up draft–you fix it up,” and the third draft is “…the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.” (pgs. 25-6). I believe that, just like the idea that all writers have shitty first drafts, separating and clarifying the intent of each draft during the revision process will help me to become more efficient by giving my internal editor routines and procedures to follow.
Of course, I also wonder if most writers truly do have only three drafts. When I am working, I have my first attempt where I write down whatever seems like it will paint the picture I have in my head. I then print it out and revise it once, share it with my mother, revise it again, and then consider it my “first draft.” I have yet to have actually completed a draft (as I have only this year managed to have a “novel” with a plot, climax, and resolution in it), but I find this process to be natural and even exciting. Having read your book, however, makes me wonder more about the entire process other writer’s go through. Thankfully I am confident that this process works for me, at least at this stage in my career, and I am left merely with curiosity and not with anxiety.
I was also drawn to the concept of small assignments. In the past, the closest I’ve gotten to a plot is that I know I want the characters to rebel against their religion based government or save their species from being the subject of scientific research and other equally broad ideas. I have the idea and then sit there wondering how to get my characters from everyday life to saving the world. I’ve been looking at very big concepts and getting hung up on them.
Lately, however, I’ve started doing an outlining process that uses scene capsules. Each scene capsule is one to two paragraphs long and very roughly sketches out what happens in that scene. Then when I go to write a scene, I have an idea of what is going to happen. I can look at what I wrote last in the previous scene and think about what small action would come next, working towards what’s in the scene capsule one step at a time until I have completed it. Only then do I worry about what is in the next scene capsule.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was essentially using the one inch picture frame to come up with a plot outline. The nice thing about having read your book was the fact that your idea of a one inch picture frame gave me a point of reference for understanding what I was doing, an idea for how to refine it a little, and a vocabulary for sharing the concept with other writers.
Over all, I think that the vocabulary your book provided me with is perhaps the most important gift that I received from what you wrote. I have already used what I learned to help several of my writing friends to get past a block they thought they had. I also have recommended the book to several people. I am very grateful that you took the time to write it and that several people took the time to suggest it to me. This is a book that I will keep on my bookshelves for a long time to come, referencing it whenever I feel like I need some inspiration. From here on out, I will approach my writing as short assignments, plot treatments, and down drafts, up drafts, and dental drafts, each approached head on as they should be: bird by bird.
the Busy Busy Bookwyrm