Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Published 1995 by Anchor. 237 pages.
Google “best books about writing” and Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird is bound to be one of the first books to come up. It’s a slim book but it’s hardly a writing manual; rather, Bird by Bird is part writing guide, part meditation on the creative process.
This is the only work I’ve read by Lamott, but it makes me thinks her books are probably really good. Her voice comes through so clearly; reading about writing likely doesn’t seem like the most interesting topic but Lamott makes it so. Each chapter, even the ones that didn’t focus on specific aspects of the writing process still engaged me. These more speculative sections still challenged me to think critically, or even just differently about how I approached writing.
The book is probably divided half and half— the nitty gritty process and more of a general attitude when it comes to writing. Lamott explores how to create authenticity and truth but also the mental realities of trying to get published, of jealousy of author friends, and failure. Sometimes it’s nice to read about how to construct multi-dimensional characters, but it’s also nice reading about Lamott’s personal journey. There’s an even balance.
If you are looking for an instructional (how to write a plot treatment, how to structure a narrative, etc.) this is not that. That kind of manual can be very helpful, particularly in fiction writing if you’ve never taken a class. However, each time I opened this book I felt inspired to write, or even just create something.
It’s more than just a therapy session, to be clear. There are incredibly helpful tips about short assignments (just one paragraph, just one page) that are very insightful when it comes to fellow writers. Like many, Lamott recommends writing everything down, but instead of the trusty journal, Lamott uses index cards. There’s something about these very isolated thoughts that I like.
Bird by Bird will not teach you how to be a good writer. It will not teach you how to write at all, in fact. It will, however, sit down with you and help you with the suffering that writing often is. Lamott writes a very honest approach on how to consider ones own writing; in her mind, an exploration of truth. Lamott thinks the best writing is about truth and hope, and here she certainly lays it all out there.