Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

8th July 2011

The best parts of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

“You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backwards.” -James Thurber

There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it. Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

The first time you read through your galleys is heaven. The second time through, all you see are the typos no one caught. It looks like the typesetter typed it with frostbitten feet, drunk. And the typos are important ones. They make you look ignorant; they make you look like an ignorant racist.

Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence. Because if I don’t learn to do this, I think I’ll keep getting things wrong.

Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects.

30 thoughts on “Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

  1. Jen

    “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train.”

    Man, I needed to hear this tonight. Two hours ago, I started chapter 1 of my first novel. I’m now 1500 words in! Tiring work, but feeling very accomplished for a Friday night. :)

  2. Rae

    I love Bird by Bird. I read it when I was pregnant with my first kid, twenty-two years old. Anne Lamott was my first novel writing teacher. Love it.

  3. Bonny Clark

    That book has probably saved my college career – 1. the story behind Bird by Bird itself, and 2. the chapter on shitty first drafts. pure gold.

  4. Em

    My favourite writing book! I just recommended it to someone two days ago.

    I love Anne Lamott. I think I first read that book about 20ish years ago myself. My fav chapter? KFKD. Yup.

  5. Manisha

    I read this book while I was writing my doctorate dissertation. It saved my ass! I think I’ve got to give it another read through because now I’m trying to move onto another project. Thanks for this awesome reminder of such a great book!

  6. Tami -- Teacher Goes Back to School

    Every time I read Bird by Bird, I feel like I’ve landed in the middle of an amazing dinner party conversation with the best luck of sitting next to the really smart woman. So simple yet so brilliant.

    I’m also a huge fan of the shitty first drafts, although I get stuck here and need a push to the next step.

  7. maile

    I love Anne Lamott. I think of her every time I pack a school lunch now. She has an rare way of making you see the world differently.

  8. melanie

    One of the best books ever, period. Her writing is so clean and clear and makes so much sense. I remember reading this for college probably 13 years ago and being just blown away by it. I have it on my shelf to re-read and this is a reminder to pick the thing up already and get started.

  9. Lynne

    Thanks for the memory jog – I read this book probably ten years ago, and I think it is time to read it again. I too love the story behind the title, and have been known to use it as a mantra when I feel overwhelmed

  10. findingmagnolia

    This is one of my very favorite books. I get something new out of it every time I read it. I feel similarly about her book Traveling Mercies. I’ve recently sold a lot of my books that were just gathering dust, but her books? No way. They stay.

  11. dgm

    Count me in as a big fan of this book. I, too, read it about 20 years ago. I just picked it up off my shelf again recently to give to my 13 y.o. daughter, a talented, yet still-budding, writer. Lamotte taught me to take anything overwhelming, not just my writing, bird by bird.

  12. Calypso

    OOhh… excellent quotes! Thanks.. will definitely be going on my reading list.
    Hahahah.. The reading list that is as long as.. oh goodness it’s longer than anything anyone’s ever seen!!

  13. Calypso

    Uhhh.. so it looks like EVERYONE has read this book except me!? I’m so behind. I better put this at the tip top of my list..

  14. Lesley

    Thank you for reminding me what a genius Anne Lamott is – I can also recommend “Traveling Mercies” and “Plan B”. She never fails to make me laugh and cry. Her writing is inspirational.

  15. Tamara

    piping in as a third recommendation for Traveling Mercies. I take these two out of the library so often I should really get my own.

  16. Mattie

    Hey Maggie, it’s been ages since we’ve gotten an update on you. Would love to know how you are.

  17. Leah

    <3 Absolute love. The shitty first drafts has saved my ass too (or helped me feel bad because I didn't remember it, but oh, well, right?). I read her book whenever I have a big project to work on.

    Her fiction, by the way, is also excellent. But this particular book is sublime.

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