Bird by Bird

After I got up the nerve to tell people I was writing, I’ve been advised to read Bird by Bird. “It’s a great book on writing, you’ll love it,” I was told. Concerned that it wouldn’t live up to the hype, I put off buying the book. When I found an unused Barnes and Noble gift card in the basement, I thought I’d use it to invest in my education as a writer by reading a book so many recommended.

Was I disappointed? Absolutely not.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott gives a realistic view of writing. Warm and emotional, it digs deep into the joy and pain of writing, illustrating points with memorable images. For example, when describing how the lack of self-confidence caused by writer’s block reveals itself, Lamott talks of feeling her talent run down her leg and drain into her sock.

The book is a wonderful exposition that probes the question do you want to write, or do you just want to be published? Or do you simply want to buy the things you think you’ll be able to purchase with the profits from your book sales? Lamott ruthlessly clues the reader in. My conclusion: if you are writing to fund some shopping sprees, you’d better be planning on trips to the Dollar Store rather than Macy’s.

Strown throughout are gems that advise, direct and inspire. She discusses character development, plot, dialogue, answers questions like how do you know when you are done, how do you overcome writer’s block, and how do you avoid libel suits.

Highly readable, Bird by Bird aroused great envy in me, coupled with an ambition to write as well some day. It’s not a how-to; rather, it is an entertaining and enjoyable guide or orienteer to the swamps, deserts and oases of the writing life, an introspective look at writing and the writing process.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is inspiring, in the sense that it makes me want to take my writing to a new and higher level and not settle for something that may enjoy commercial success, or just be competent work. Instead, I’m inspired to follow a calling, to consider what truth I am telling about life and the human condition through my writing.

Splitting hairs for a moment, I take exception to one piece of advice. Lamott says it’s wrong to write with a message. I disagree. I’ve read many books that contain what I would consider a message. I agree that a book that was written simply to teach or persuade readers to believe something that sacrificed story or characters to convey the message isn’t good writing.

But how does “tell the truth you know, to help readers make sense of life” differ so widely from writing with a message?

John Grisham wrote a successful novel, clearly trying to persuade readers of the evils of capital punishment. Of course, he was well established with a huge following, and did not sacrifice story for message. I’ve read many other books that have what I would consider a message.

With that one little quibble, Bird by Bird is a great addition to any writer’s library, and I’m certain that I’ll be referring to it for tips, inspiration, and encouragement as long as my fingers can still move over the keyboard.

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