Part memoir, part writing guide, Bird by Bird is a delightful book filled with rib-tickling anecdotes about relationships, parenting, faith, taking risks, following your dreams, and just plain living. I picked it up with hope of getting tips on doing some serious writing, and came away with a notebook filled with thoughts and ideas and suggestions about writing, and lots more.
As a person who has often needed to be nudged to get going on projects that posed a serious challenge, I felt that Lamott managed to do just that. She addresses the age-old problems of procrastination and writers’ block, of perfectionism and letting go, of how to write shitty first drafts and how to develop real-life characters and authentic dialogue. She talks about writing through a “one inch picture frame,” and who to trust to read your drafts. Even how to get past the obsession with publishing and dealing with critical reviews. Along the way, she draws on her own somewhat tortured experiences with writing and with living, all presented with a raucous sense of humor that had me laughing out loud and even nodding my head in familiar sympathy.
Lamott organizes her chapters along the lines of the college-level lessons she teaches on creative writing. She started her first lesson by suggesting that her students write about their childhood school lunches, and then proceeded to describe the hilarious scenarios we can all dredge from our own memories. Lamott describes elementary school lunches as “the precursor of the showers in seventh- and eighth-grade gym, where everyone could see your everything or your lack of everything…. The contents of your lunch said whether or not you and your family were Okay, and some weren’t.” Can’t you just see the makings of a short story here?
Lamott’s final chapters got a bit too touchy-feely for me, and I’ll confess that I enjoyed the first three-fourths of her book better than the end. But for all that, there is enough insight, useful advice and–most of all—her own special brand of humor to make this a worthwhile read.