When I wrote a couple months ago about my favorite writing books, Linda suggested that I read Bird By Bird. I immediately grabbed it from the library stacks, but then I let it sit on my desk for a while, and in that time it kept coming up in different contexts until I finally picked it up and started reading. I immediately knew it was one of those books I wanted to own and underline, so I bought it and returned the library copy. Kind of like when I was reading Infinite Jest, people would see me reading Bird By Bird and comment. Mosly “I love that book” or “That’s my wife’s favorite book.”
So, like, no pressure. But, everyone loves this book, so you better too. It didn’t replace On Writing as my favorite, but I did enjoy it, and I just love all of these memoirish writing books. More than I want to know about technical aspects of writing, I want to know about the lives of actual writers and how they write.
One of Anne Lamott’s main points is that you should not write to be published, because you probably won’t be, and anyway, getting published is not going to change your life in quite the way you think it will. But, don’t worry, there are plenty of other reasons to write. People often get discouraged at these words, but she’s not trying to crush any spirits. It’s true that few people get published, and nothing ever changes your life in quite the way you expect it to. Even if you find success, you’re still going to be you with all of your same problems, but you know what might help you deal with those problems? Writing.
This book is very honest about the difficulty of writing and all of those negative feelings of defeat and jealousy. Sometimes the tone didn’t quite work with me, because of course I experience those feelings, but maybe not so constantly. Or maybe I was just reading on a day when I was already down, and I needed something a little more hopeful. What I did take away is that writing is difficult for everyone, and even authors with several published books to their names do not approach a blank page with mastery, type as if in a trance, and then back away from their desks feeling like geniuses, perfect manuscripts in hand.
What I loved most about Bird By Bird was the emphasis on writing from a place of vulnerability. Yes, it’s hard, but do it anyway. Write about your life. Own your experiences. Change the names of the people who have done you wrong to avoid libel, but use that material, because it belongs to you. There were life lessons tied in about keeping your heart open that I appreciated and kind of needed to hear. As Anne Lamott says herself, “these are words we are allowed to use in California.”
Some of my favorite quotes (there were a lot of them):
“I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.”
“I wish I had that kind of inspiration more often. I almost never do. All I know is that if I sit there long enough, something will happen.”
“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.”
“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it . . . Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.”
“I honestly think in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? Let’s think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. The alternative is that we stultify, we shut down.”
“Take the attitude that what you are thinking and feeling is valuable stuff, and then be naive enough to get it all down on paper.”
“I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good enough at it, and I don’t think you have time to waste on someone who does not respond to you with kindness and respect.”
“Members of your family and other critics may wish you had kept your secrets. Oh, well, what are you going to do? Get it all down. Let it pour out of you onto the page. Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.”
“Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past . . . Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent and fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it.”
“After thirty years or more of floundering around and screwing up, you will finally know, and when you get serious you will be dealing with the one thing you’ve been avoiding all along–your wounds. This is very painful. It stops a lot of people early on who didn’t get into this for the pain.”
“No matter what happens in terms of fame and fortune, dedication to writing is a marching-step forward from where you were before, when you didn’t care about reaching out to the world, when you weren’t hoping to contribute, when you were just standing there doing some job into which you had fallen.”