Review: Bird By Bird

Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

Summary: Anne Lamott’s advice to her writing students, basically, “almost every single thing I know about writing.”

Anne Lamott grew up around a father who wrote. She learned, along with prisoners he taught, to put a little down on a piece of paper every day, and to read lots of great books and plays and that we all have a lot in us to share. She started doing this as a schoolgirl and never stopped. Her second grade teacher read a poem she wrote about John Glenn and she won an award. She’d sit with her dad and write poems. Eventually she learned that she was good at stories and funny. She wrote sophomoric material as a sophomore but she heeded her dad’s counsel: “Do it every day for a while. Do it as you would do scales on a piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.” It might be that this is some of the best writing advice in a book chock full of Lamott’s earthy, practical, and funny advice.

Basically, according to Lamott, if you want to be a writer, you need to write. In the first part, she talks about basic steps to getting started. If nothing else, write about your childhood–everything you can remember and sit down and do it at the same time every day–struggling with the voices that say you can’t do this. One of her exercises is to write about school lunches–we’ve all got those memories. It’s not time yet to think about agents and publishing. It’s time to work on writing. She advises starting with short assignments, what you can see through a “one inch picture frame.” This is where “bird by bird” comes from. When her brother was stymied by a report on birds, her father told him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” She also advises writing without reining yourself in, which means “shitty first drafts” (a phrase that recurs more than a few times–Lamott’s way of keeping it real). Perfectionism is the enemy, like a muscle cramp that keeps us from moving freely.

For writing fiction, she advises getting to know your characters and the plot will emerge. Avoid plot devices and shortcuts that lose your reader’s trust. Write dialogue by which your characters are recognizable and realize that writing dialect is hard writing and hard on readers. She describes the moment she broke down when her editor told her her book didn’t work, and the meeting the next day where she made the case for her book, told him all the stuff she’d forgotten to put down, the thoughts she had about how she could solve the problems in the plot. He said “thank you” and asked her to write that book, beginning with a chapter by chapter plot treatment of what she had just told him. It became her greatest novel. And she talks about knowing when you are done.

She talks about the writing frame of mind–attentiveness, understanding the moral point of view of a piece, learning to rely on intuition, and learning to breathe and align ourselves with the work rather than listening to the station in our heads–KFKD. She offers tips of things along the way, from carrying index cards to scribble down things we may need in a story–a line of dialogue, a memory recalled, a simple occurrence in the grocery story–calling around to find someone who knows what the wire thing on top of a champaign bottle is called, finding writing groups and those who read your drafts. For writing block, she suggests just trying to write one page of anything–even those childhood memories–and wait. She wraps up the book talking about publication, and what she calls “her last class” which not only has some funny advice about avoiding libel but a wonderful description of the pleasures of the writing life.

Lamott, as in all her books can be funny, profane, transcendent, and serious, sometimes within the space of a few sentences. Some of the most moving passages are those where she talks about her friend Pam, who died of cancer, and what Pam taught her about life and writing. She gives us a sense of that mysterious drive to write, because we can’t not write, the hard work and the great joys of writing. One also has the sense as you read Lamott, that writing opens one up to something bigger, the grandeur and tragedy, the serious and silly things, the morality and meaning of a life well-lived, and how we all fall short of it. And it all starts with short assignments, shitty first drafts, and bird by bird.

Review: Almost Everything

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, Anne Lamott. New York: Riverhead, 2018.

Summary: A series of “notes” or essays on hope, especially amid disturbing times.

“I am stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse, even as I await the blossoming of paperwhites on the windowsill in the kitchen.”

Anne Lamott

That’s how this collection of essays in which Lamott sums up why she lives with hope in apocalyptic times. She wrote this before COVID, George Floyd, the 2020 elections and their aftermath, and the invasion of Ukraine and a world staring at the possibility of World War Three, which is almost unthinkable. How did she know.

In “Prelude” Lamott describes this book as being written for her grandson and niece as almost everything she knows that might help. Then in typical Lamott style, she diverts and says that there are really only two things she knows–that she is mightily tempted to jump off of rooftops and out of speeding cars and that she has seen miracles.

She writes of the paradox of truth and how it affords hope when you hit bottom because there is something else, that bottom is only one side of the paradox. We really can’t change others or save them–it is an inside job. She writes, “Nor did I know about grace, that it meets you exactly where you are, at your most pathetic and hopeless, and it loads you into its wheelbarrow and then tips you out somewhere else in ever so slightly better shape.” There really is no fix in life, only forgiveness. We especially can’t change families–only live with them and forgive. Most things will work if we unplug them–even us. We need to surrender the impulse to return hate with hate. Empathy awakens us to how like we are to what we are tempted to hate. She derides diets that end with us gaining weight, suggesting kindness toward ourselves might be better.

There is probably little better writing advice than she gives a bunch of first graders, which was really writing one bad page after another until they became a book. She thinks that bitter chocolate is only good to balance wobbly chair legs and that we do better to carry Kisses in our backpacks to give away and make friends. She writes about death and accompanying the dying, comparing our lives to hen and chicks, with the belly button center that grows outward in glossy green leaves that eventually thin, fade, fall off and feed the soil. Contemplating death makes life richer.

One of the most moving chapter narrates the life of Kelly, an atheist friend who was in AA with her, and then out because she didn’t like the God part, her downward decline after a divorce and the death of her dog, their shared love of Survivor and the last, alcohol-ridden years where Anne hoped God would break through because nothing else could, and the final rest she found when she and a friend who was her last joy killed themselves together. She narrates the tragic fortress of alcoholism that led to her friend’s death when God came in the form of welcome and a cup of tea at an AA meeting.

She concludes with coming back to hope. No sweetness and sentimentality. We confront the terribleness of things, and yet glimpse the wonders of the world, the hush of a forest, and still have the sense that in the end, it will be well.

Lamott has this uncanny ability to puncture our pretensions and our certainties without leaving us bereft. In this context, of finding hope in the face of apocalypse, it comes down to the idea that there is always something beyond bad, that the story doesn’t end that way. Whatever we ground that in–God or intuition–it’s probably the best we have to hang onto in these days.