Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is right up there in popularity as Writing Down the Bones in writing circles. The first time I read it, I was completely baffled by its popularity. I would have given it a begrudging 3 stars and mostly because I like Lamott’s candor and humor. Otherwise, I was left uninspired. I held onto the book for whatever reason and, after reading a couple of her essay collections and some of her novels, I chose to reread this book with the intention that, should I still find it underwhelming, I would give it away.
I can only guess that when I read the book the first time, I was not interested in writing a novel. Or perhaps I was in some other phase of my personal writing. For whatever reason, this time when I read the book, I found it more inspiring. It is probably no coincidence that I came up with a writing challenge while reading this book. I also wrote a piece for someone’s blog at her request. I even sent part one of one of my novels (I have more than one manuscript) to someone who offered to read it for me.
This is what I look for in a book that is supposed to be inspirational. No, this is not a practical guide that will tell you how to revise your writing. Lamott shares her writing process, her experiences, and even pulls the curtain aside to reveal the man hiding back there, the bugaboo of what it takes to be published and what it means. The reality of publication is not pretty and Lamott doesn’t pull punches, but she hits with humor and it is easy to accept even the most bitter truth when it comes from someone who is both humble and a moderate success. Less successful, the reader could too easily dismiss the less joyful news as sour grapes; a too successful writer, on the other hand, would be ignored because the reader would just assume any words of caution are rooted in good fortune, dismissing the things with a breezy “easy for you to say.”
For inspiration, this book works for me. I’ll probably read it again but not any time soon. For those who have loved Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and who have one or more novel manuscripts waiting for publication, this book may be just enough inspiration to get you to a workshop or revise one more time. Don’t look here for practical advice beyond the early stages of writing. While Lamott will urge you to find other writers to read your work, will insist you write daily and hold your writing time sacred, but she will not tell you how to carry a rough draft, line by line, to publication nor will she delineate how to get an agent to shop your work around. This book is for the earlier stages in writing. As I’ve learned, if read at the right time, this is a very good book. If you’re disappointed in what Lamott has to say, come back to her book a few years later and see if you don’t find it more informative and amusing than you did before.
It worked for me. Now I’m off to get more writing done.