I recently read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Although originally published in 1994, this inspirational book for fledgling writers is a timeless trove of advice from an experienced author who has been there. Anne knows the elation of creating a story that works and the abysmal crash of writing something that flops, and she shares what she has gleaned from her own creative peaks and valleys. Mom-writers probably recognize Anne Lamott as one of the old-school grande dames in the now-saturated market of tell-it-like-it-is mommy memoirs with her endearing, inspiring reflection, Operating Instructions. (If you haven’t read this one, rush to your library or bookstore and prepare to get inspired.)
Just like Operating Instructions, Bird by Bird lets the reader in on a little private conversation with an esteemed writer. As I pored over this book, devouring it over a span of 24 hours, I felt like I was Anne’s good buddy. Like I got to stick around after a giant writing conference to have coffee with the teacher and get the scoop on what she neglected to share with the other students. Lamott offers no condescension, no looking down from a lofty successful pedestal. Just an honest assessment of what she thinks it takes to find joy in your craft.
Unlike other creative-inspirational books that left me feeling guilty for not following their step-by-step regimen (The Artist’s Way) this sweet manifesto soothed the guilt. Anne’s been there. She knows the monsters of self-doubt, the inner critics that loathe anything you write, and the judgmental parents who read over your shoulder. Lamott names the beasts and helps you talk yourself off the ledge when they threaten to push you over.
This is not a how-to book. Instead, Bird by Bird celebrates the ever-important “WHY?” of writing and encourages inexperienced authors to ditch the need for fame, money, and glory. Instead of going for the book deal, we are encouraged to focus on the emotional respite and the peace of mind that inevitably results from a good, solid writing purge. An audience with an agent and a publisher is a lovely bi-product, but not the end goal. (Of course, this all comes from a woman who has built a financially secure career on selling her product, so it may be easier to espouse writing for writing’s sake once you have all your ducks in a row and are not longer worrying about whether or not to give up your day job.)
All in all, Bird by Bird is a must-read if you are feeling blocked, in writing or any other creative pursuit. If you are a visual or performing artist or fluent in any sort of externally manifested individual expression, I highly recommend this book. Just substitute your own passion for the writing bit and you will feel equally motivated to get off your tush and break those huge projects into small, manageable pieces. In fact, I plan on giving a copy to my sister, a graphic design artist.