Review: bird by bird

bird by bird by Anne Lamott, was published in 1994, and is 237 pages.  It is, perhaps, the most recommended book for writers I’ve seen, so I had to read it. The subtitle of the book is Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and the book provides just that.  It is an enjoyable read in its instruction because the author is humorous and irreverent, which is refreshing in a “how to” book. 

I’ll do with this review what I did with my review of Writing Down the Bones.  I’ll post some quotes and highlights.  If you are a writer, this book is a must read.  If you’re married to, are family of, or friends with a writer, it is also a must read.  It explains our psychology, our quirks, and our drive, and will allow you to understand us a little bit better than you did before.  It is for acquaintances of writers what Al-Anon is for acquaintances of those in AA.  Not that writers have a disease, but, well…you know what I’m saying.

  • Lamott quotes E. L. Doctorow by saying that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”    (p 18)
  • In answer to writers as perfectionists: “Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get.  Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.”       (p. 29)
  • On narrators needing to be as likable as a really interesting friend: “When you have a friend like this, she can say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to drive to the dump in Petaluma–wanna come along?’ and you honestly can’t think of anything in the world you’d rather do.”  (p 50)
  • On flawed characters: “They shouldn’t be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.”  (p. 50)
  • In her chapter on how to know when your writing is finished and ready for submission: “There’s an image I’ve heard people in recovery use–that getting all of one’s addictions under control is a little like putting an octopus to bed.” (p. 93)
  • On writer’s block: “The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.”  (p. 178)
  • On the advice of a doctor about her dying friend:  “Watch her carefully right now…because she’s teaching you how to live.” (p. 179)
  • On worrying that the content of your book might offend readers, “Write as if your parents are dead.” (p. 199)
  • On the necessity of truth in writing: “Truth seems to want expression.  Unacknowledged truth saps your energy and keeps you and your characters wired and delusional.” (p. 199)
  • On why we read and write: “Because of the spirit…Because of the heart.  Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.  They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.”  (p. 237)

Books like bird by bird are good for writers because they articulate the joys and challenges of the craft, and decrease writer’s isolation.  I’ll return to this book in the future–as I will return to Writing Down the Bones and On Writing–for affirmation and instruction.


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