If you begin researching the best instructional books on writing, Bird by Bird is one of the classics you will stumble upon. In my quest to craft a personal required reading list, this book by Anne Lamott couldn’t be ignored. It was on nearly all of the top 10 lists I read.
I’m baffled. Befuddled. Bemused, even. This book didn’t teach me much.
Before I unleash my criticism on this book, I should note that I certainly didn’t hate it. It was a fine read, and I learned a pocketful of tips to frame my own writing. Anne Lamott is a fantastic writer, and certainly qualified to write these types of books. If I felt like I didn’t learn much in this book, it may be because so many writers have stolen Lamott’s wisdom and repurposed it in their own tomes. Lamott’s book may read like ‘been there, done that’ simply because I’ve read this stuff before through other writers.
I’ll also note that I’m not the greatest writer, and I have a long ways to go before I am even close to the point where I am in a position to dish out writing instruction. But I’d be doing my readers a disservice if I sat here and gushed about how much I adored this book.
Disclaimer: I didn’t actually read this book. I listened to it on Audible. I think part of my disinterest in this book stemmed from the narration. It’s too late now, but I wonder what my experience and thoughts would have been like if I read this book the old-fashioned way, and created Anne Lamott’s voice in my head. The narrator had a twang and attitude in some passages that rubbed me the wrong way. Though she was a perfectly competent narrator, I don’t think it did the book justice.
I’ve always kept a running a file of notes (something that Lamott recommends in Bird by Bird, in the form of index cards,) and while I’m reading or listening to a book, I’ll jot down things that stick out to me – the good stuff that I want to remember.
The swipe file for Bird by Bird is a small one. Here are a few of the key points (not verbatim from the book, just what I captured in a note):
- When faced with the question, “Why do you write,” Anne quotes two writers, and says, “Because I want to, and because I’m good at it.” I really enjoyed this simple response. Often time writers create a lofty mission for themselves. They write because they have to. It’s refreshing to here a straight answer. Write because you want to.
- Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. Like Stephen King, Anne Lamott also recommends to not focus on plot, but rather on characters. The metaphor of a car driving at night helped me conceptualize this better. You can and should only look so far ahead of you, even if you do have some sense of direction and/or destination.
- The gulf stream will flow through a straw if the straw is aligned with the stream. Isn’t this a great visual image? The context here was more or less allowing the writing to happen, and creating an environment and state where you weren’t blocking the flow.
- Building sandcastles with words. I forget the complete passage here, but again, Lamott paints a beautiful picture of the creative power a writer yields.
Honestly, that was it. Some really nice poetic images that helped me understand writing in a new light. In terms of applicable instruction, this book doesn’t deliver quite like Everybody Writes and On Writing.
There are bits and pieces of biography and life lessons here, much like Stephen King’s On Writing, but I didn’t connect with the author in many cases. The tone was very melodramatic. I think, perhaps after teaching so many aspirational writers, Anne Lamott felt inclined to “burst the bubble,” and expose young scribes to the realities of the writing life. She does this with humor, I suppose to be less harsh on her students, but I found it to be repetitive.
Throughout the book, Lamott would describe these exaggerated scenarios that critical writers would find themselves in, where mentally they always leaped to the worst case scenario. These asides occurred a lot, and didn’t offer much value to me. I know writing is hard, and I know there is no glamour in being published.
I’m not sure where the instruction on life was in this book. Life is full of ups and downs, and Lamott’s was no different. I suppose the self-aware humor and honesty have a profound effect on most readers of Bird by Bird, but honestly I just didn’t connect – and again, maybe that was completely the audiobook’s fault. Maybe the narrator stirred up some image of Lamott that didn’t jive with the words on the page.
Onward and Upward
The most important takeaway from Bird by Bird is that if you want to write, you just have to write. Just write. This isn’t new, a lot of instructional writers say this, but it rings true every time I hear it.
I’ll close this review out by saying that you should read Bird by Bird. I’m the outlier. This book is on every must-read list for writers, and the reviews on Goodreads are outstanding. Please check it out and make your own decisions, and come back here and tell me I’m a fool in the comments.
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