Writerly Book Review: bird by bird by Anne Lamott

bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, Author of Operating Instructions, is a book on the writing life that doesn’t pull any punches about the journey to publication and the journey after it as a writer.

And yes, the title is really in lowercase, which seems like a strange juxtaposition after reviewing a grammar book last week. Trust me, when I show students this book, I want to change the title and use capital letters every time, but that’s not how it’s written.

I read this book while I was in college, near the end while I was student-teaching and too busy to be reading anything other than my students’ essays, but I’m me, so I read it anyway. The book was brand new. I think one of my professors recommended it. My copy has yellowed pages, some dog-eared pages because I annotated my copy and didn’t like using tabs at the time, and many handwritten notes added on the first read, the second read, and onward. For a while I had two copies of it, a nicer version that I would allow others to see, and my own personalized version. I finally gave my nicer version away because I wanted to share it and I decided I will own up to my annotated personalized version which has been much beloved.

For those of you who are horrified by the idea of annotating or dog-earing a book, you have my sympathy for I am horrified those who break the spines of books to save their pages while reading, but I still annotate and dog-ear books I intend to keep and reread for life. I do use bookmarks, but the dog-ears or occasional usage of tabs is meant to help me find my favorite parts beyond the initial reading of a book. I don’t dog-ear any library books or borrowed books, and only start dog-earing when things are so good I know I’ll keep the book forever. My copy of bird by bird may have to be replaced someday, if I read it too often, but for now it is still good, and I can find all of my notes every time I pick it up.

bird by bird has instructions and tips on how to pursue a healthy writing practice, but it also includes the aches and joys of writing and the writing life. I recommend reading it for both those reasons.

Here’s a small, and fairly well known sample from the book:

“The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments. Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of – oh, say – say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier.”

…. (Skipping a beautiful section of prose here)

“…I finally notice a one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.”

Anne Lamott, bird by bird

What Anne Lamott gets at here is that instead of trying to climb the entire mountain of a book in one sitting, we need to start with a short assignment we can finish in one sitting. It’s brilliantly written, entirely applicable, and refreshing.

So, what are you waiting for? Don’t take my word for it. Go to the library or the nearest bookshop and find this book. It’s worthwhile reading for writers.

bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

My beloved, annotated copy.

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