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“Bird by Bird” – Sunday Book Review

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

bird by bird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

I think most of us writers get ourselves so worked up over the big picture, the completed work, the masterpiece, that we forget larger, greater things can only come together when all the little pieces fit. Everything we write comes together the in the same way: word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.

That isn’t to say there is no creativity or mystery involved.  Those words we choose, or that choose us, to build those sentences come in a surprising array of ways.  It is helpful though to remind ourselves to take it all “Bird by Bird,” to relax and let go of some of that control, to tell our internal editor to shut his or her mouth, and to just focus on taking it step by step.

“Bird by Bird” is probably the most hilarious book of writing advice I have ever read, but it is also one of the most practical.  Lamott is frank about the fact that sometimes writing really sucks.  Sometimes you pour your heart and soul into a draft, and re-read it only to find out it was pure rubbish.  Guess what?  Not only is that okay, it happens to all of us.

I know some great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much…Very few writers know what they’re going to do until they’ve done it.

Reading this book is like listening to one side (sometimes more) of a conversation with a close friend (one of those friends who is funny and encouraging, but isn’t afraid to call your bluff).  “Bird by Bird” was published in 1994, and since that time I have read it cover to cover at least three times. I thumb through it constantly.  When I can’t find where I left it the last time I was reading it, I panic.  Whether I need a prompt, a smile, a hug, or a kick in the butt, I can count on this book to give it to me.


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