WRITING WITH WINGS: REDISCOVERING ANNE LAMOTT'S 'BIRD BY BIRD’
When I first came across Anne Lamott’s critically acclaimed book on writing, Bird by Bird, I couldn’t help wondering, 'What do birds have to do with writing?' Some of my friends enjoy writing and others love birdwatching, but they're only occasionally the same people. So why the intriguing title? Was Lamott comparing the wonderous aeronautics of our feathered friends with the mental and spiritual flights of fancy aided by excellent writing? Or had the title more to do with hatching plots and ideas? The question of how Lamott intended to appeal to budding writers by drawing from the avian world enticed me to take a closer look.
The answer stretches back in time to a powerful childhood memory, echoing some wise counsel Lamott once heard and never forgot. Decades ago, her 10-year-old brother had been struggling to finish a school report about birds, which he'd procrastinated over for three months. As he sat at the kitchen table one evening, immobilised in tearful despair, their sympathetic father dropped this line of sage advice: 'Bird by bird, Buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'
On reflection, it's a great motto for the book, with every chapter delivering yet another short prescription, each designed to help make a small dent in the overwhelm writers set for themselves. And Lamott is certainly qualified to write such a book, drawing from decades of personal experience in writing fiction and nonfiction, as well as teaching creative writing. Her advice throughout is frank, blunt and often very witty, refreshing us with repeated insight into how other writers have faced (and overcome) the same creative blocks and challenges we find ourselves facing.
The first thing that stands out about Anne Lamott’s style is her mastery of metaphor. She paints many vivid images that stick with us simply because they are hard to forget. For example:
'Solving problems in our final drafts is like putting an octopus to bed. You get a bunch of the octopus’s legs neatly tucked under the covers – that is you’ve come up with a plot, resolved all the conflict between the two main characters, gotten the tone down pat – but two arms are still flailing around. Maybe the dialogue in the first half and the second half don’t match, or there is still that one character who still seems one-dimensional. But you finally get those arms under the sheets too and are about to turn off the lights when another long sucking arm breaks free.'
Lamott freely uses imagery such as this because she believes in its power. ‘Metaphors are a great language tool,’ she writes, ‘because they explain the unknown in terms of the known.’
Since she finds most students are anxious to learn about the nuts and bolts, the first section of the book focuses on craft. For impatient perfectionists, Lamott breaks the news that first drafts are necessarily sloppy and shoddy. 'Perfectionism,' she suggests, 'is a mean, frozen form of idealism while messes are the artists' true friend.' The book contains plenty of similarly liberating ideas.
For me, however, what sets Bird by Bird apart from many other instruction books for writers is Lamott's compassionate focus on an author's frame of mind. The book's subtitle is Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Lamott doesn't gloss over the ups and downs all writers inevitably face. Since our thoughts morph into beliefs which may easily set into fixed negative attitudes capable of undermining our creativity, Lamott takes time to talk us through our emotions and upsets. She seems fully aware that depression and other saboteurs may prevent our work from ever seeing the light of day, and addresses these and other topics some might shy away from.
One chapter, for example, discusses the problem of envy. Specifically, envying other authors who make huge splashes in the publishing world with material that doesn't strike us as superior to our own, while we continue to struggle for recognition. While other mentors may deem this emotion too distasteful to admit, Lamott considers the battle with envy to be a direct attack on our drive and confidence, and as something that should be addressed rather than swept under the carpet. If a part of us reacts like a small child who thinks our friends are getting all the candy, admitting this is a healthy step forward. At least when we feel like wicked stepsisters, we can admit solidarity.
Lamott also has plenty to say about that elusive idol of getting published. Here, for example, is one especially memorable insight:
'Whenever the world throws rose petals at you, which thrill and seduce the ego, beware. The cosmic banana peel is suddenly going to appear underfoot to make sure that you don't take it all too seriously.'
In Bird by Bird, wake-up calls such as this are frequent, and ultimately comforting.
My favourite aspect of the book is Lamott's discussion of a writer's reverence for reality, which she sees as necessary to pulling off our passion. She believes the writer's basic goal is to help readers experience the same sense of wonder or awe that drives us to pick up our pens. For those of us who write fiction, we discover what helps us through life and what hinders us, and then we let our characters act this out dramatically. It's a beautiful incentive for an occupation which is often solitary, non-lucrative and sometimes described by others as frivolous or peripheral.
Bird by Bird is a priceless guide written by a generous soul who's learned her lessons through hard experience. Instead of hoarding these lessons to herself, however, Lamott offers them freely for the benefit of others. In a chapter entitled Giving, Lamott explains that kindness is her ultimate reason for writing, since so many hurting people in the world may be soothed by reading what we've written. She believes that although there is no cosmic significance in getting published, there is in giving, which any writer can aspire to. It would not surprise me if this book has been a lifesaver in the production of many other great works by authors who have found within its pages the impetus to carry on, who would otherwise have crashed and burned.
Returning to the alluring title of the book, I believe Lamott provides us with more analogies between writers and the bird kingdom than she may have intended. She makes it clear that writers share several characteristics which give birds their evolutionary edge.
What enabled birds to survive while the dinosaurs crashed and burned? Firstly, their gift of flight. Physical elevation enables birds to soar above peril and evade famine, and for writers, our pens function as our wings. Our work also helps readers to rise above the ground level of their mundane, sometimes demanding lives, giving their imaginations something higher to latch onto. Lamott puts it this way:
‘This is our goal as writers. To help others have this sense of wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us of guard, that in on our small, bordered worlds.’
In other words, good writing offers an aerial view of all that we find familiar, highlighting the sacred, awe-inspiring aspects of our lives.
Secondly, the migration patterns of some birds often cover incredibly vast distances. Likewise, as we writers research, plan and write, there are no limits to where words and stories may take us. Writers are not even confined to places on earth, so our migration paths may include purely imaginative terrain on which to settle.
Thirdly, birds have finely formed frames which give them flexibility to face whatever life may bring their way. As writers, Lamott encourages us to develop similarly robust spirits, enabling us to face praise and censure with the same calm detachment. She describes some reviews that insinuated she was, ‘a tread mark on the underpants of life,’ and assures us that she survived this feedback. Resilience is one of the hallmarks of the successful writer. ‘Being enough has to be an inside job,’ she says.
Wittingly or not, Lamott’s title references a class of creature with ancient origins, wonderfully adapted to survive, and full of long-lasting mystique, offered as an image for understanding a calling which is much the same. Bird by Bird is a book worth dipping into over and over, even if only a chapter here and there, as birds peck seed.
Paula Vince is a South Australian author of contemporary, inspirational fiction. She's also a blogger, reviewer and mother of three. Getting stuck into a good book is one of her very favourite pastimes. For more of her book chat, check out www.vincereview.blogspot.com