What Writing’s For: An Appreciation of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is the most helpful, encouraging, and honest book about writing I have ever read. I’ve read a few.bird_by_bird

Most books about writing and the creative life come across preachy. It is hard to write about the creative process without sounding either prescriptive or condescending. I often avoid both traps by embracing vague, gushing hyperbole. (See for yourself.)

Reading books about writing is so often like candy. It makes me feel happy, enthusiastic and inspired for a few minutes, maybe a day, but then the bottom falls out. The bright ideals fade, and I am left with a crippling hangover, a shock of self-doubt and a fear of the page.

Inspiration rebound syndrome afflicts most aspiring writers. Bird by Bird is the antidote.

In Bird by Bird, Lamott achieves a friendly, familiar, no-nonsense tone. She is that best friend always telling you things you need, but don’t really want, to hear. She got me writing again, and here’s why: she gave me something better than inspiration. She gave me a useful perspective.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Most people who write will never be published. I should write anyway.
  • The first draft is going to suck. Write it with love but write it quickly. Get it out and behind me so I can write the second draft. It may suck too but each draft should get better.
  • Novels aren’t built the way they are read. Stories get told in layers. They aren’t lined up in neat rows. Writing is more like painting than brick laying.
  • My writing won’t save the world, but it may save my life.

And here’s what I carry that has made my writing easier and better. Writing and publishing are separate things. You have almost no control over whether or not your writing gets published and yet the act of writing itself gives a sense of control and purpose.

Writing is a practice. You can devote yourself to the practice. You can do it everyday. You can use writing to develop a sense of mindfulness. You can use writing to teach yourself to pay attention. You can use your writing as a way to cultivate empathy with others and recognize connections between people, ideas and the choices people make.

A life spent this way is a life filled with joy, deeper awareness and purpose. Even if no one reads what you have written, they will see it in the way you live your life. You will carry this habit, this way of seeing, around with you.

You will still be frustrated and confused but you may find yourself becoming more patient and less lonely. Your writing will teach you to appreciate your life. Your writing will constantly bring you back into the company of yourself.

This makes it work very much worth doing.

Find Bird by Bird in a library near you.

What books have helped you understand why so many of us bother writing?




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