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: Working

Working

Working: Researching, Interviewing, WritingRobert A. Caro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

Summary: Less a full biographical memoir than a description of the author’s methods of researching material for his books, writing them, and the question that has driven his work.

It seems that I have been reading one of Robert A. Caro’s books from time to time since I moved to my current home town nearly thirty years ago. He has been writing them even longer. The four volumes in print of his Years of Lyndon Johnson. His massive The Power Broker on the life and pervasive influence of Robert Moses on the city of New York and Long Island to this day. He is currently at work finishing the fifth, and hopefully final, volume on the presidency and post-presidency of Lyndon Johnson. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his work on Robert Moses, and one for one of the Johnson volumes, and just about every other major book award.

In contrast to his massive volumes, Working is a thin and pithy piece of writing in which Carol describes his process, and the question that has driven all his work. From his days as an investigative reporter for Newsday, he had a passion for discovering and explaining to people how things worked in government. That led to the realization that to explain this, you had to understand how power worked. Robert Moses, a figure who never held elective office and yet who probably displaced a half million people for his freeway projects through New York, who created parks for the people of the city and roads to connect them, taught him how power worked. Then to understand the exercise of political power by elected officials, he set his sights on Lyndon Johnson, who rose from the hill country of west Texas to the White House. Along the way, he gained a mastery of legislative processes and control over the Senate and his party that has not been seen before or since.

Such figures do not give up their secrets easily, if at all. Much of Caro’s books describe his exhaustive research methods, driven by his curiosity and instincts to get the whole story. One of his early mentors told him to “turn every page.” As he did this with Johnson, he discovered a notable change of pattern in the young congressman courteously seeking favor of others, to those others, even senior figures, seeking his attention. More careful page turning isolates the turning point to October 1940. More sleuthing in files pulled out of his House archives uncovered correspondence that indicated he had become the conduit for major campaign donations from a Texas fir, Brown and Root. And so Johnson began to accumulate power.

Part of his research was to see the things of which he was writing, and invite those who he was interviewing to the site of events to describe not only what happened but to describe the scene so he could see it. Soon, memories would flow, and Caro, could then write about events so that his readers could see them. To understand Johnson’s youth and gain the trust of area residents he wanted to interview, he and his wife Ina moved to the Hill Country of Johnson’s youth for several years. He describes movingly what it was like for Rebekah Johnson, Lyndon’s mother, to live in a house out of sight of any others as night fell on the Hill Country.

He describes his determination to get to the bottom of the question of whether Johnson stole his 1948 election to the Senate, won by a razor thin margin with the ballots of “Box 13” in Jim Wells County. His research took him to Luis Salas, who he tracked for years, who finally entrusted him with a manuscript that provided the evidence that the election had indeed been stolen. He recounts in interviews the times he “had the story” and yet sensed there was more and dared to ask one more question, and discovered there was more.

In addition to describing how he researched, how he interviewed, recounting a number of those interviews, he describes his writing process. Someone has said there is no good writing, only re-writing. Caro is proof of that, moving from longhand manuscripts to typewritten copy marked up and re-typed, to corrections throughout the publishing process. He admits he would re-write the finished books if he could.

And now I understood how it has taken him fifty years to write those books, and still not be done with Johnson. He gives us an inside glimpse into what it takes to create these magisterial works: curiosity, diligence in the archives, dogged persistence in the interviews, working and re-working the material to get it right.

With investigative journalism struggling for its life, I concluded the book wondering whether I was reading the narrative of some of the last of a breed. It seems this is an important question because of the larger vision that drives Caro. The book ends with a 2016 interview in The Paris Review. The interviewer has observed that Caro hopes “the books serve a larger civic purpose.” Caro replies:

   Well, you always hope something. OI think the more light that can be thrown on the actual processes we’re voting about, the better. We live in a democracy, so ultimately, even despite a Robert Moses, a lot of political power comes from our votes. The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.

We need investigators like Caro to throw light on processes. Will we find ways to continue to mentor and support them and offer them platforms from which to shine their light? And when they do, will we pay them any heed? One thing Caro is right about. Our democracy depends on it.