Bird by Bird
Anne Lamott shares insights on writing with wisdom, brutal honesty, and humor.
Author: Anne Lamott
Publisher: Anchor Books
Anne Lamott is a seasoned writing instructor and the author of many impactful stories, such as Traveling Mercies, Operating Instructions, and Crooked Little Heart. In this masterwork about writing, she shares deep and gritty insights into the life of a writer.
Spiritual Content: Anne Lamott is a Christian, however, she is more liberal in her theology than many in mainstream evangelical culture. As she means to encourage people of all faiths through this book, she often gives suggestions that reference other religious practices. She also has a great deal of respect for the fourteenth Dalai Lama and quotes him several times.
Violence: This book mentions thoughts of suicide and a paranoid fear of death.
Language/Crude Humor: Ms. Lamott is not averse to using profanity in her writing and uses words such as h*** and d****. She also uses stronger words, such as f***, and is partial to the word s**t, even using it as part of a chapter title.
Sexual Content: The author tells a story about reading a scene from her father’s book, which described sexual contact. She also tells stories that include her friends of different sexualities.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Anne Lamott speaks of her father’s use of recreational marijuana with his writer friends, as well as her tendency towards alcoholism in troubling times. She does not condone these practices, but she does not explicitly condemn them, either.
Other Negative Themes: The author uses feminine pronouns to refer to God on a few occasions, which may be offensive to some. Also, mental illness is treated in a lighthearted manner on a few occasions.
Positive Content: Anne Lamott is brutally open about her life. She encourages readers to relinquish the false notion that we have control of our own lives by sharing our stories and learning the stories of others, even when they seem ugly and unfinished.
I was assigned several chapters from this book for a communications class at Moody Bible Institute. I decided to read the rest because the few chapters I read were so accurate, soul-nourishing, and relevant to some of my personal experiences as a writer. Anne Lamott’s chapters seem randomly placed at first, and the sections did not seem to follow an ordinary writing process. However, I realized over the course of the book that this was no ordinary self-help book or instruction manual.
Anne Lamott has crafted a memoir of sorts — an autobiography. Through the personal stories, writing samples, and anecdotes between pieces of advice, she is opening up her life to her readers. Obviously, such a vulnerable position opens her up to critique of all sorts. I believe her main intention was to show other writers and creatives that they are not alone.
The chapter arrangement of this book does not seem to make sense as a standard “writing process” format, even though the chapter titles and headings seem to imply that it should. The continuity comes from the story being told through all the disjointed anecdotes. By the end of the book, I felt like I had an understanding of Anne Lamott’s life — from her childhood as the daughter of a writer, to her adulthood as a published author and single mother.
It might seem strange that there would be characters in this kind of a book, but all the people in Ms. Lamott’s life — from her writer father, to her cancer-stricken best friend, to her toddler son — are described in such a way that readers come away feeling as though they have become friends with these individuals.
The style of prose in Bird by Bird is jarring. Some of Anne Lamott’s descriptions are repulsive, some are bizarre, and some are beautiful. Her language goes from being crass and vulgar to sacred and poetic in very short order. Yet, with all these contrasts, the unifying element is her honesty. I could not help but believe that this is the same voice in which the author thinks her most personal thoughts. These analogies and descriptions are the way she sees the world.
Between and inside her stories, thoughts and rants, a call to action appears. If this is the way our minds work as writers, then we have to do something about it. We have to write. We have to get the thoughts out of the whirlpool inside of us. We have to be bold enough to put something down on paper.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott does not give five easy steps to getting published. She does not give instructions on how to polish your manuscript to perfection. She paints a portrait of the heart and soul of an artist. While it is, by the very nature of the book, a self-portrait, it also serves as a mirror for the reader. As I read the book, I found myself thinking, “Yes! Me too!” more often than I might have liked.
+ Very honest
+ Compels readers to act
+ Beautiful prose and personal stories
- Use of strong profanities
- Depictions of alcohol and drug use
- Occasionally makes light of mental disabilities