Although I’d seen many recommendations for Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird1, I put off reading it because it sounded a bit too mystical for my tastes. In fact, this book is fairly big on spirituality, with the author frequently referring to God or her church or her pastor’s advice, but it’s balanced with a healthy sense of humour. For example, she explains that she begins each day of writing with a prayer and recommends that all writers use some form of ritual:
“Try it. Any number of things may work for you – an altar, for instance, or votive candles, sage smudges, small animal sacrifices, especially now that the Supreme Court has legalized them. (I cut out the headline the day this news came out and taped it above the kitty’s water dish.)”
However, most of the book consists of sensible advice about various aspects of fiction-writing, including plotting, creating a setting, developing characters and writing plausible dialogue. She advises writers who feel overwhelmed by the thought of writing an entire novel to begin with “short assignments” and to visualise scenes through a “one-inch picture frame”, because as E. L. Doctorow noted, “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.”
She also explains that “perfectionism will ruin your writing” and emphasises that all first drafts are terrible:
“I know some very 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. We do not think she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”
I especially liked Lamott’s description of how to know when you’re finally “done” with writing your final draft, the process of which is like “putting an octopus to bed”:
“You get a bunch of the octopus’s arms neatly tucked under the covers – that is, you’ve come up with a plot, resolved the conflict between the two main characters, gotten the tone down pat – but two arms are still flailing around . Maybe the dialogue in the first half and the second half don’t match, or there is that one character who still seems one-dimensional. But you finally get those arms under the sheets, too, and are about to turn out the lights when another long sucking arm breaks free.
This will probably happen when you are sitting at your desk, kneading your face, feeling burned out and rubberized. Then, even though all the sucking disks on that one tentacle are puckering open and closed, and the slit-shaped pupils of the octopus are looking derisively at you, as if it might suck you to death just because it’s bored, and even though you know your manuscript is not perfect and you’d hoped for so much more, but you also know that there is simply no more steam in the pressure cooker and that it’s the very best you can do for now – well? I think this means that you are done.”
I didn’t agree with everything Lamott had to say about writing (for example, she is opposed to planning and dislikes “the rational mind”), but she discusses it all with such warmth and charm that I enjoyed reading and considering her thoughts. This book is highly recommended for both beginning writers looking for practical advice and encouragement, and more experienced writers seeking inspiration.
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- By the way, the book’s title comes from advice her writer father gave to her ten-year-old brother, who was overwhelmed by the task of writing a huge school report on birds that was due the next day: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” ↩