Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Review: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is one of those ‘famous’ books on writing that writer-type folks talk about whenever the subject of good-books-to-learn-writing-skills comes up. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time.

However, I found it very difficult to get through.

The premise of the book is based on a wonderful 30-year-old memory: Faced with the insurmountable problem of writing a book report on birds, Lamott’s 10-year-old brother is in tears and wondering how he’s going to get it all done. Their father puts an arm around his shoulder and says, “Bird by bird, Buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Fabulous advice.

But I realized after reading the introduction the book was not for me. It’s written in a literary style, a bit verbose for my tastes, and the takeaways aren’t what I need in my writing life right now. In my mind, Lamott spends a lot of time rambling about she thinks about things, rather than adding any concrete “how to” to the information. And there are a few chapters where she talks about something that happened to her, and you’re sort of left to wonder what she wanted you to get from the aside.

In the first chapter, “Getting Started,” Lamott talks about writing the truth and writing what’s real. She advocates starting with writing down everything you remember from school and kindergarten and holidays and such, along with your feelings and what you knew at the time. If you keep hacking at it, you’ll find the truth, or what’s real to write about. And that’s where you should start writing.

As a writer of speculative fiction, this isn’t what I needed (or wanted) to hear. I make things up. And while my stories might contain a kernel of something that happened to me (or someone else I know) it’s not going to resemble anything in the way of this exercise. The feelings, the emotions, yes – else how could you identify with my characters? – but the rest doesn’t make sense for me.

(From a genealogical perspective, on the other hand, I find this chapter fascinating. And, I might have to give it a whirl when I find the time.)

Other chapters in the book offer sound advice for beginners:

  • Start small. (Especially if you are easily overwhelmed by large projects.)
     
  • It’s okay to write terrible first drafts.
     
  • Stop being a perfectionist. Perfectionism is “the voice of the oppressor,” according to Lamott.
     
  • Plot grows out of character.
     
  • Care passionately about what you write.
     
  • Trust what your inner voice – your intuition — is telling you about your writing.
     

Then there’s a chapter called, “School lunches,” where Lamottt talks about a writing exercise she uses in her classes. Everyone writes down what they remember about school lunches and then they compare. She says when they discuss the differences of lunches throughout the states, it’s where they “see in bolder relief what we have in common.”

She gives some examples of what she wrote, which seem over dramatic. I think they’re supposed to be funny, but aren’t to me. It’s like she’s trying too hard.

One section of the book is called, “Help Along the Way,” where I suspect Lamott meant to suggest some useful tools for writers. But she spends an entire chapter discussing index cards, where the advice amounts to “Always carry something to write on.”

In another chapter, “Calling Around,” Lamott advises, “There are an enormous number of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone.” Again, good, but we don’t need entire chapters to get the point across.

Two chapters, “Writing Groups” and “Someone to Read Your Drafts” are all about finding critique partners and getting feedback on your work. These are the two best chapters in the book. They contain good information, especially for beginning writers, and I agree with most of what she says.

(Unlike Lamott, I don’t advocate getting feedback from relatives, because in most instances they’re too afraid to hurt your feelings to tell you what you need to hear.)

The chapter on writers block is encouraging, but not instructional. There are no suggestions for how to overcome it (although an earlier chapter on writing letters could be useful. Lamott does not tie the two together.)

If you want to learn more about the author Anne Lamott, read this book. There are long passages about what she thinks about the writing process and how she handles it. She’s admittedly neurotic about it, and makes the assumption that most writers are as well. I disagree.

If you’re looking for concrete examples on how to write, new tools for your toolbox, or tricks of the trade, I’d look elsewhere.

Two chewed pencils.

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