Wednesday, November 10, 2010

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

For years my good friend Pat has suggested that I read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  I didn't follow up on her suggestion, though, because it's a book about writing.   I didn't quite see why I would be interested in reading this since I'm a reader, not a writer.  When I recently told Pat that I've been thinking more about writing, albeit newsletters and blogs, rather than fiction, she mentioned the book again so I finally went to the local public library and checked it out.  Let me tell you, this book is a treat!

From the moment I started the book, I didn't want to put it down.  I also didn't want to read it too quickly, though, because then I'd be done.  Lamott sets the book up by explaining that she teaches a class on writing and that she has distilled her lectures into this handy reference manual.  She starts the book with an intro that talks about growing up in a family of readers and a father who wrote for a living.  Watching her father go through his process taught her that "One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore."   (I actually get that.  As ridiculous as it sounds, writing this blog has led me to seek things out that I am interested in doing but might have otherwise skipped.)  She spends a lot of time talking about how being a writer teaches you to pay attention to the smallest details--to appreciate little nuances and build them into your stories for the reader to enjoy.   She talks about growing up as a funny looking kid and how she ended up using humor as a way to deal with her looks.  Her humor is apparent throughout the book--sometimes in a laugh out loud kind of way and sometimes in a more subtle way.  Take, for instance, her discussion of one writer she knows who has the ridiculous ability to write "elegant" first drafts.  Lamott says, "...we do not like her very much.  We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.  (Although, when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)"  

Lamott shares her perspective about the process of writing, including poems and quotes throughout the book that have inspired her or made her laugh.  When talking about her feelings about writing, she includes a poem that Wendell Berry wrote about his wife entitled "The Wild Rose":

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust
so that I live by you unaware
as the beating of my heart.

Suddenly you flare in my sight, 
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

Each chapter in this book is a gem and in fact does have lessons about writing and lessons about life.  The title of the book came from an event from her childhood.  Her ten year old brother, having had three months to write a report for school about birds, found himself at the kitchen table the night before it was due with nary a word written and research all around him.  He was overwhelmed at the prospect of what he had to get done and asked his father for advice.  "Just take it bird by bird," he said.  Ah--a day at a time, a word at a time, a bird at a time.  What wonderful advice.

There are so many wonderful things in this book that I'd like to just copy it here for you to read.  The story that she tells about "false starts" is just another example.  It's really a cautionary tale about not jumping too quickly to conclusions (or assumptions about how people really are.)  Lamott went with her church group to a convalescent home to conduct a worship service.  On her first outing, she thought it was just about the most depressing place she'd ever been.  She felt that she immediately knew what the residents were all about and that she could have described them as a group to a T if she were writing about them.  Having stuck with the program for four years, she now sees them as individuals, appreciating each of their unique traits.  She talks about how they clap during the service.  "..even the ones who clap all clap differently.  Some clap along frailly, almost in silence.  One woman claps with great gusto, as if she's at a polka.  One old man claps once, as if to kill a fly."  She uses this experience in the book as an example of how you could get your characters all wrong if you didn't take the time to get to know them.  I take a larger lesson away from this story.

Bird by Bird is filled with great stories that any reader can appreciate, whether or not you aspire to be a writer.  I'm looking forward to reading one of Lamott's novels--I think I'll start with Rosie after having read about how difficult it was to get the story down in a way that made sense.  And I've resolved my concern about reading this book too quickly and being done with it--I've ordered a copy for myself that I can pick up anytime I want a few words of wisdom.   

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