Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Sunday, January 29, 2012

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

I haven't yet read any of Anne Lamott's novels, but I loved Bird by Bird. It promises, on the cover, 'some instructions on writing and life'; it's part-writing advice part-memoir, the two very much interrelated. Her primary advice in this book is to write 'shitty first drafts' - writing a minimum amount every day, always moving forward. It reveals that the struggle of being a writer doesn't ease with publication or success, and focuses on the writing process above the goal of publication. There's a lot more to it than just these pieces of advice; it is also a lovely book to read, a celebration of writing and reading.

You can find this book on Amazon and read more of the many, many reviews on Goodreads. Almost all of them are positive - a lot of them glowing - apart from those negative one that take the this writer is obviously a crazy person tact. I think if you are the kind of writer who doesn't suffer from self-doubt or immense frustration, or who likes to plot their novels before they begin writing, the advice in this book will perhaps not suit you. (Lamott is very self-deprecating and jealous of other writers, though humorously. I think a lot of people, writer or non, are like this, and the vulnerability and rawness she has when writing about her own life make her seem very genuine and endearing.)

She uses a quote from Cool Runnings that I am very much a fan of (I've used it myself in the past, but she used it in relation to writing a long time before I did - this came out the year after my birth): A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one. She focuses very much on the writing part over the publishing part. Even though it's seventeen years old (hey! just like me!), it remains relevant - publishing is only mentioned in passing, and the idea of mailing a manuscript out seems somewhat quaint, but this is not at all the focus of the book. The widespread use of the internet is the only other major difference to the experience of writing Lamott expresses in the book - now, the process of researching a novel is much faster, and perhaps dehumanised. Lamott writes about calling a nursery up to ask what flowers would bloom in a particular place at a particular time of year, whereas a simple Google could solve all plot problems today.

I found it very reassuring and the 'shitty first drafts' tip awfully helpful. It's beautifully written, if at times excessively wordy (and obviously a bit self-indulgent, but I think that occurs in all memoirs), so even if blindly stumbling forward isn't your writing style (or even if you are just a passionate reader), it's still an enjoyable read. Here are some lovely quotes from the book, if you aren't yet convinced to pick it up:

“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

“You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won't really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we'll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won't wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.”

“E.L. Doctorow said once said 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.' You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

“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 that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)”

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
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