“Honey? Leave him lay where Jesus flang him.”
Bird by Bird is a very famous, New York Time bestselling book about writing by novelist and memoirist Anne Lamott. Pretty much every writer ever has recommended it, which is why I bought it three or four years ago. It’s also why I recommend it … even though I’ve never actually read it (oops).
For some reason I can’t explain, I yanked it off my shelf early this afternoon, took it out on my front porch with a notebook and a pen (and plenty of sunscreen), and proceeded to read the entire thing. I underlined frequently. I made a few notes in the margin. And often I’d drop it to the porch floor, snatch up my notebook, and start jotting down notes for my own manuscript. I paused to water the plants, and for dinner. Later that evening, as the sun went down, I read the last page and finished refreshed and energized in a way I haven’t been for the last week or so. After starting a really fun manuscript, I walked away from it mid-scene and just haven’t managed to sit down again. And thanks to Bird by Bird, that stops now.
Anne encourages us to write. Just write. To complete small assignments, like thinking back to our first few years in school and writing down everything we can remember. She encourages us to write “shitty first drafts” and avoid perfectionism like the plague. She has this great image of writing what’s in “the one-inch frame” and not trying to thing of the novel as one big thing all the time. Just tackle what you can see in the one-inch frame. She talks about characters and plot and taking a novel apart and putting it back together again. She implores us to listen to our broccoli, and she references Cool Runnings (always a win in my book). And along the way, she tells stories and jokes and tells you a lot about school lunches, and in the end, all you want to do is just write.
What I’m saying is, you need to read this book. Like, yesterday.
I want to share a few of the pieces of brilliance from Bird by Bird, so that if you haven’t read it, maybe you’ll be inspired to. And if you have, maybe it’ll spark that bit of inspiration you got when you first read it. So here ya go, a few bits of wit and wisdom from one of my new favorite ladies, Anne Lamott.
“After a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.” (p. 3)
“Left to its own devices, my mind spends much of its time having conversations with people who aren’t there. I walk along defending myself to people, or exchanging repartee with them, or rationalizing my behavior, or seducing them with gossip, or pretending I’m on their TV talk show or whatever. I speed or run an aging yellow light or don’t come to a full stop, and one nanosecond later am explaining to imaginary cops exactly why I had to do what I did, or insisting that i did not in fact do it.” (p. 26) [I'm not sure if ever I've seen my inner life captured so clearly on a page...]
“How would your main character describe their current circumastances to a close friend, before and after a few drinks?” (pg. 47)
“For the climax, there must be a killing or a healing or a domination … but whatever happens, we need to feel that it was inevitable, that even though we may be amazed, it feels absolutely right, that of course things would come to this, or course they would shake down in this way.” (pg. 61)
“Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.” (pg. 112)
“Writing is bout hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.” (pg. 114)
“Not long after, you get your early reviews, in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and sometimes they sound like your mother wrote them. Other times they suggest that you are a show-offy vacuous loser, and they hope you die so that they won’t have to read your work anymore. I have gotten prepub reviews that said I was a treadmark on the underpants of life. Perhaps this is not exactly what they said, but by reading between the lines, I could see that this is what they were implying. You survive that. Possibly you’re still drinking, so you have a pitcher of martinis just to take the edge off, or you’ve quit drinking, so you eat your body weight in pastries and Mexican food. Somehow you get the time to pass…” (pg. 212)