Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott (1994).

Susan gave me this book a few years ago and I just reread it in preparation for Nanowrimo. It’s amazing. Lamott manages to be inspiring, funny, wise, practical, entertaining, and encouraging all at once. And she writes with such apparent ease, such deceptive effortlessness, that you’re almost fooled into thinking you can write just as well, just as easily.

Most practical advice: Focus on the short assignment — the one-inch-square picture frame. And embrace the shitty first draft.

Too many excerpts and underlined passages to count, but here are a few.

p. xxii: “‘Do it every day for a while,’ my father kept saying. ‘Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.'”

p.4 “Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”

p.6 “You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.”

p.15: Why write: “Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life — wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.”

p. 99: paying attention: “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.”

p.114: “Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly. There will be many mistakes, many things to take out and others that need to be added. … when you need to make a decision … just do one thing or the other, because the worst that can happen is that you will have made a terrible mistake.”

p.127: Lakota Sioux saying: “Sometimes I go about pitying myself. And all the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky.”

p.202: “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. If you give freely, there will always be more. This is a radical proposition that runs so contrary to human nature, or at least to my nature, that I personally keep trying to find loopholes in it. But it is only when I go ahead and decide to shoot my literary, creative wad on a daily basis that I get any sense of full presence, of being Zorba the Greek at the keyboard. Otherwise I am a wired little rodent squirreling things away, hoarding and worrying about supply.”

Bird by Bird