Thursday, September 18, 2008

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamotte

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Book review by Sarah Pinneo (author of The Ski House Cookbook)

Most times, I would cross the street to avoid a book about writing. Those of us who have delved too far into writing books have come away with the realization that every moment spent reading them is really just a moment subtracted from-- you guessed it-- writing!

But then there's novelist Anne Lamott. Her Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is the only writing book I've ever found to be worthy of procrastination. Lamott frames the book modestly, as if it belonged on the same shelf as those other watery tomes about writing punchy dialog and describing your characters physically. Although you'll find practical pearls of writing wisdom between its covers, Bird by Bird does not aim to instruct in the minutia of good writing. Instead, it shows the reader how good writing gets done. It is a book about process.

The cornerstone to Lamott's process is the chapter entitled "Shitty First Drafts". It seems obvious only in hindsight that every writer on the planet writes shitty first drafts. But when Lamott painstakingly explained the transformation of my Shitty First Draft to an edited masterpiece, a light bulb went on over my head. (Apparently there have been many such light bulbs, since Bird by Bird outsells most of Lamott's actual novels.)

Writes Lamott: "I know some very great writers, writers... 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." Holding the reader's hand, she explains how to get past the anxiety and disapproval of rough writing in order to find the "heat" of a piece, and then develop it. Lamotte permissions her reader to feel doubt and self loathing. But she does not permit the reader to give up. And she does all this with prose that is knee slapping, gut-aching funny.

Her wonderful imagery and humor along the way make the book an easy page turner. The end of the book meanders a bit into other topics: "Writers Block", "The Moral Point of View", "Publication." Those parts of the book are less forceful, but every bit as fun to read. For example, Lamott encourages her readers to use even painful material from real life in their writing, yet she advises them to change details in just such a way as to prevent libelous action. If all else fails, she recommends giving those characters "a teeny, tiny penis" in the story so that the real life men who inspired those characters would be less likely to step forward and sue.

On every page of Bird by Bird, you'll find a reason to reflect, and also a reason to laugh.


Anonymous said...

I love BIRD BY BIRD. I have a well worn copy and frequently referred to the chapter on "shitty first drafts" as I was writing my debut novel, STALKING SUSAN. I recommend it to all writers. It is inspirational as well as practical.

Anonymous said...

I actually purchased this book just yesterday and then spent the next several hours, after I'd reached my daily word count goal, reading and laughing out loud. Very enjoyable book even if you've never written a word in your life.

mary ann chulick said...

I very much enjoyed "Bird by Bird." Anne Lamotte has occasionally written for the online magazine and currently has an article up about the presidential race.

Anonymous said...

It is a lovely book, isn't it? It's a great book to read when you feel tired and overwhelmed by deadlines, because it picks you right up and you feel like you're not alone.

ggwritespoetry said...

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this book. It made me realize how much writers have in common. It offered support in a crazy writing life.

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