Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Reading Challenge #37: Bird by Bird

Reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a bit like listening to a marathon of Billy Crystal’s SNL routines as the complainer character: “Don’t you just hate it when…” His character’s kvetching is both comical and annoying, at least to me. And that’s where I stand with Lamott’s book on her approach to writing. Granted, she has reached a measure  of success, yet, the process seems to be so painful for her I wonder if she should try another line of work, one that doesn’t require copious amounts of emotional disarray and therapy. Then again, maybe she likes the worry, grief, angst, and drama that occurs when writing. Actually, if she didn’t have anything to complain about she wouldn’t have anything to write about. 

image: The story behind the title is a life lesson of taking a big task bit by bit.

For me the introduction resonated the best. The rest of the book was more of the same sardonic humor and illuminating bits of epiphanies. I did stick with the entirety and did find several take aways, ones that resonated with me in how I approach writing:

  • “I understood immediately the thrill of seeing oneself in print. It provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist.” (introduction xiv))
  • “The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”(intro xxvi)
  • This one really got to me since I am a bovine believer: “Writing…is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, ad the the cow is so glad you did it.” (intro xxxi)
  • “…putting an octopus to bed [is like the final draft]. You get a bunch of the octopus’s arms neatly tucked under the covers–that is, you’ve come up with a plot, resolved the conflict between the two main characters, gotten the tone down pat–but two arms are still flailing around…you finally get those arms under the sheets, too, and are about to turn off the lights when another long sucking arm breaks free.” (p. 94)
  • “The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell” standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes.” (p. 97)
  • “Writers are like vacuum cleaners, sucking up all that we can see and hear and read and think and feel and articulate, and everything that everyone else within earshot can hear and see and think and feel.” (p. 177)

I do feel like the cheese sometimes. I notice stuff other people don’t and when I point these observations out to them they usually respond with that patronizing smile, you know, the one that indicates that you’re cute or crazy or annoying for noticing what seems mundane.* I also feel like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up sensory matters. Anne missed one analogy though–writers storing all that information are like the back room of an understaffed post office. The information is there but stored in a box, bag, or slot waiting patiently to be delivered.

One chapter I especially related to was “Calling Around.” For her it was tracking down the name of the wire thingy that is part of the champagne bottle. Wire thingy wasn’t working for her and she couldn’t move on in the story until she discovered the name. After calling around she learned it’s simply referred to as a metal hood. Kind of takes the romance out of the champagne experience. For me, I needed to know the name of the clothing ancient Chinese warriors wore. Should be an easy search–right? No. And no again. I wanted to show the character in my story that pants haven’t always been part of fighting garb (who can forget Mel in his Braveheart kilt?). After some searching around I came up with a possibility. I’m still confirming it. It’s not even that crucial to the story, yet I couldn’t move on either until I had put that flailing octopus to rest.

Overall, I was entertained while learning that writing and writers are definitely the cheesiest people around. We are on the outside, capturing how everyone feels on the inside. And that’s a good thing. It makes us a bit crazy but crazy is the new sane. Heigh ho, the dairy-oh….

*NOTE: A spider busily working its weaving web wonder is significant because it is oblivious that its achievement is going to be seen not as a marvel but as a mess needing to be swept away. My mind goes scampering towards metaphors and greater analysis. It’s not just a spider. Maybe that’s the title of a book I need to write about how writers write.

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17 thoughts on “Reading Challenge #37: Bird by Bird

  1. I know who else this author reminds me of from your description, Billy Crystal in “When Harry Met Sally.” I felt you gave the best parts to us, I appreciate and trust your opinion 🙂

  2. Tracking down that all-important name of a thing is classic writer’s procrastination disguised as work. Guilty!

  3. “Putting an octopus to bed” is perhaps the most perfect simile I have ever heard. I’m gonna have to find this one.

  4. This book has been sitting around my house for a while. I’ve picked it up a few times but could never get into it. Do you think it’s one I could dip in and out of? I loved reading your excerpts so I’m thinking that might work.

    Sorry I haven’t been around in a while!

  5. I still use the “bird by bird” analogy whenever I feel overwhelmed by any task. I love her humor. She cracks me up. But I can understand how you might want to read her work in short spurts.

    • I actually use the elephant analogy with my students when it comes to their assignments. “The best way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time. So the best way to get your research paper done is one paragraph at a time.” They either look amused or aghast that I would consider eating an elephant. Whoosh. Right over their heads… *sigh*

      • ha! But they’ll remember that analogy when they’re old and gray. And they will remember you! Keep your fingers crossed that it makes them more successful in their chosen professions. 😀

  6. I’m glad you reviewed this book because I’ve heard such wonderful things about it but haven’t had a chance to pick it up. I stupidly passed up the opportunity to buy the book at a used book fair and regret it, so I’ll have to make sure I get a copy soon.

  7. oh, i’ve also had my eye on this one. think i could benefit from reading it.

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