Author shares life, writing insights
Posted November 20, 2011on:
Anne Lamott writes “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,”a hilariously serious account of writing and events from her life. The expression laugh out loud applies to this book in many instances, but in others, the author takes a serious approach tinged with humor to get readers to absorb the important writing lessons and life situations she shares.
The name of the book came from a family story centered around a report her then 10-year-old brother needed to write. Lamott’s brother decided to tackle the report the day before it was due while at the family cabin. He sat in a panic, close to tears when his dad sat down by his side and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Lamott uses this example to give her students hope and to keep them from being overwhelmed.
This theme carries throughout Lamott’s book as she guides readers in their journey into life and into writing. She breaks the book into five parts: Writing, The Writing Frame of Mind, Help Along the Way, Publication-and Other Reasons to Write and The Last Class. She keeps chapters short within these parts and makes them sing with anecdotes and metaphors to explain, encourage and reveal the truth about writing and life.
She’s prone to colorful language and seems to love the word shit in all of its aspects. Even her 3-and-a-half-year-old son, Sam, picks up on it when he locks himself out of the house. Lamott asks him to repeat what he said and then she says, “But, honey, that’s a naughty word. Both of us have absolutely got to stop using it. Okay?”
Of course, she doesn’t follow through with that idea and goes on to talk about shitty first drafts in a chapter by the same name. She says in these drafts the writer lets everything roll out onto paper, and that’s how writers get to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” She uses an example of a food review to walk the student through the process.
Lamott uses metaphors, so readers understand her concepts. She compares a first draft to a Polaroid photo developing. She encourages writers to ignore perfectionism since it inhibits the writer and blocks such things as inventiveness and playfulness in their writing. She emphasizes the ability to see things as a child sees them because children notice everything and talk about them honestly and with wonder.
As a writer, Lamott always carries index cards and a pen with her, so she doesn’t miss an idea or anything else. She writes down conversations and describes unusual things she sees or she just scribbles hurried notes as reminders. She saves the cards, but in no useful order, and sometime uses them for information in her books or to remind her of things that happened. She humorously describes reasons people take notes some of them being a disorganized mind, the drugs taken along the way or brain matter lost while giving birth.
Lamott talks about writers groups and conferences. She says writers usually attend these events to gain attention and feedback for their work and to find out what and how other writers write. Lamott gives them honest feedback without ridiculing their work. Some of her students form their own groups to help and encourage each other with their writing.
As Lamott speaks of writer’s block, she remembers something a doctor told her before Lamott’s friend Pammy died. “Watch her closely right now,” she said, “because she’s teaching you how to live.” Lamott says those words changed her life, so now when she encounters writer’s block, she pretends she’s dying and decides what to do next.
Before Lamott’s friend, Pammy, and Lamott’s father died, she wrote books about them, and they both got to read them. Lamott wrote the books with love and respect, but she also wrote about their experiences with cancer in a way that made her laugh. She was happy that she got to do that for her special audience of two even though some of the critics thought it was in terrible taste.
In classes, Lamott asks students why they want to write. Many say they were punished when they were children for things they wrote, so now they will write. They find it difficult to find their own voice to write their truths, so Lamott suggests, “Write as if your parents are dead.”
In the part titled The Last Class, Lamott writes, “Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act – truth is always subversive.”
Lamott says it all. She makes the reader laugh, cry and think, and she teaches them valuable lessons, bird by bird.
Photos by Janice Semmel