If you’ve ever googled something like “books all writers should read”, you have most probably seen Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life at least once. This book doesn’t give precise advice on language and storytelling or how to make a living as a writer, but it gives some pointers as to how to deal with life as a writer – which probably helps in making it sound universally true. Like, on Twitter, I would hashtag this #writerslife, not #writingtips or #authorpreneur.
I happened to finish this book just before the beginning of my creative writing course, and was pleased to find it on the recommended reading list.
First, let me say that this book is beautifully written. It is vibrant, poetic, witty, sad, true. It teaches by example. You’d think that’s a given with books on writing, but I know from experience that it’s not. Anne Lamott’s voice in the book is warm and honest, as if she had written the book for a friend or her son. It makes you feel like you’re talking to a friend over a cup of tea. There are a few references to Christianism, but not so much to bother non-Christians. I found every piece of advice to be sound and wise.
The book is divided into five parts. I had already figured out from experience most of what’s in the first part of the book, but I was glad to have some validation that I’m doing (and seeing) things the way a professional writer would. More experienced writers might find that there aren’t a lot of “new” ideas, but I didn’t mind. First because Lamott’s style is exquisite, secondly because there really aren’t any secrets to writing a book, and thirdly because the chapter on characters made me realize what was wrong with my protagonist.
The second part deals with the mindset. There are a few chapters that I thought most people, and not just writers or artists, could enjoy reading, including “Radio Station KFKD” (about those ugly thoughts that keep being broadcasted in our heads) and “Jealousy”. That last one almost shocked me at first, but then I realized I had experienced a similar feeling in my early 20s, just in a different context that didn’t have to do with writing – but very much to do with providing for myself. Despite all the wise precepts one attempts to abide by, it’s difficult to keep a cool head when survival is at stake.
The third part is about everything that can help a writer in times of need. I love research and didn’t think I had much left to learn about it, but I had never thought of calling friends and family to have them talk to me about what they know. I especially loved the chapter “Letter”, which opens in the following way:
When you don’t know what else to do, when you’re really stuck and filled with despair and self-loathing and boredom, but you can’t just leave your work alone for a while and wait, you might try telling part of your history—part of a character’s history—in the form of a letter. The letter’s informality just might free you from the tyranny of perfectionism.
The fourth part is mostly about publication. I have no experience in the matter, but a lot of what Lamott says rang true. The chapter “Giving” made me cry, literally. Here’s another quote, from the beginning of that part because I love it and it seems there is “truth” written all over it:
Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer.
The last part is a single chapter and wraps up the book, and it left me inspired and at peace.
This book made me feel the urge to read Anne Lamott’s fiction. She has also written several non-fiction books about faith: that’s not my cup of tea, but a classmate in my creative writing class who happens to be a minister for some Church in Ontario said she loved those.
Who would I recommend this to? Writers, old and young, new and experienced. And for non-writers, definitely check out Anne Lamott’s others books: she has published several novels (I added Rosie to my to-read line-up) as well as non-fiction (I heard Hallelujah Anyway was accessible for less-convinced Christians).