Book Review: Bird by Bird

This week’s book won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, but if you are a writer, or hope to be one someday, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a must read.

Anne Lamott is a favorite author of mine, having cried and snorted through Traveling Mercies while I was pregnant the first time (a must read for any new mother with a sense of a humor).

I wasn’t aware that she had written a book on writing, but my always thoughtful mother of course spotted it and kindly had Amazon deliver it to me at just the right point of self-doubt and fear in the course of my own writing.

The title is from Lamott’s father, who offered the encouraging words once to her older brother, who was staring down an overwhelmingly blank page; what would become a report on birds for school. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Lamott captures in perfectly painful clarity the tremendous difficulty of spinning out something…anything…worth reading.

[It’s] like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.”

Weaving in a bounty of personal stories and quippy advice, Lamott almost sits with you and shares in your alternating enthusiasm and self-loathing. Bird by Bird seems more like a true love story, with all the ugly parts honestly pointed out, so that you can finally let go of the romantic vision that only brings out your inadequacy.

I will caution that Lamott focuses a good deal on fiction writing; however, each of those particular chapters were either easily adjusted for non-fiction writers, like myself, or littered with valuable stories that were well worth finding, rather than skipping that chapter on set design or plot.

I teared up just a few times and laughed more in one day that I have in a long time, which is certainly a benefit in and of itself. And, as typical to a writer as Lamott points out, I am left jealously wishing I could be so witty. Alas, we each have to tackle our own glaciers, bird by bird.

Giveaway! Enter to win Bird by Bird in two easy steps:

1) Become an email subscriber if you aren’t already. You can subscribe here.

2) What short quippy thought could sum up a life lesson of your own? Share your thoughts on this post.

The subscriber with the most compelling comment by the end of the day Monday will receive a brand new copy of Bird by Bird!

MST. Contest is limited to addresses in the United States, including APO/FPO addresses with US Zip Codes. [post_ender]

  1. Like a baby sea turtle, our first trip to the ocean is a long trek, fraught with peril. Often when we take off toward a goal, the taunts of the seagulls can feel like a full-out attack. But we won’t survive if we just hide in the sand.

  2. Great point, Marcie. Thank you for sharing the positive impact that one of your students experienced. The lessons certainly are relevant for everyone.

  3. I think even non writers can learn something from this text- something about life in general. We all feel self-doubt when we attempt to do something difficult or new and if we aren’t careful we may end up sabotaging ourselves through negative self-talk. One of my students just finished this same book and shared that he turned off negative self-talk by doing something like mowing the lawn and then basking in the feeling of accomplishment when he finished- and then reminded himself that he will feel the same way when he finishes his difficult task.

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