Thursday, November 26, 2009

Books for Writers (2): Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

This book was recommended to me by Teri Hall, author of the forthcoming The Line, out next March from Dial. I hope you excuse my name-dropping--I'm just so excited for Teri's book to come out!

Anne Lamott is the author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, none I have ever read or even heard of unfortunately. She's also a book and restaurant critic and teaches writing classes. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life evolved out of these classes. The writing style is very informal, as if you're sitting at the back of her class, short story clutched in one hand, coffee in the other with a headful of ideas and enthusiasm.

You won't find the rules of paragraphing in this book. Or adverb-sledging. Or a discussion of speech tags. What you will get is an homage to writing and writers and the joy being an artist can bring. Lamott doesn't see reading and writing as a mere hobby, something to pass the time in between moments of "real" life. Rather, writing and reading is life for some people, and if you're lucky enough to make it yours you are opening up a world of richness and fulfillment. Stephen King in On Writing acknowledged that some people need permission to do nothing but read and write all day, so he said "There you go! I'm giving you permission. Sit your goddamn ass down." (I paraphrase. He didn't use those exact words. He probably said f***ing ass.) In Bird by Bird, Lamott not only gives you permission, she sings the praises of the craft so sweetly that your bum will be in your writing chair so fast you won't know what happened:

Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you ... My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I am grateful for the ocean. Aren't you?

But refrain from slapping the book down and jumping straight into a blank page of Word. Read on. There are so many beautiful passages in this book, not least the one from which the book gets its name:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilised by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulders and said "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

Lamott handles the big-picture stuff in this book: taking things bird by bird so you don't get overwhelmed, shitty first drafts, viewing your scenes through a one-inch frame. Then there's sections on jealousy, writer's block and libel. The book is worth reading for the passages on jealousy alone. I'm not unfamiliar with the green-eyed monster myself. If I believed in astrology I'd blame it on being a Scorpio. But I'm a non-believer, so I'm stuck with blaming myself. With her singular humour, Lamott relates her own instances of being afflicted by jealousy and how she dealt with it. There's some beautiful advice, some sensible advice, and some snarky advice. I like the snarky advice best, it being two lines of a poem by Clive James entitled "The Book of my Enemy has Been Remaindered". I like it so much, in fact, that I tracked it down and will reproduce it at the bottom of this post so we can all return to it the next time our short story doesn't win a prize, our article is knocked back or we get a form rejection from an agent who requested a full or partial. (This is a heinous crime. I'm happy to receive a form rejection from an agent I've sent a query to, but from someone who's requested and read my work? It's like saying "This was SO bad I can't even face talking to you." The green-eyed monster then erupts from her tomb, howling These Things Are Not Happening To Other People, Clearly I Suck.)

Whether you had a happy childhood or an unhappy one, there are doubtlessly moments you look back on that you'd rather didn't happen; that cause pain or embarrassment or shame so acute that you'd like to cut that part of yourself right out of your body. My own childhood contained the trauma that you'd expect a middle-class white girl to have: divorce, pimples and social awkwardness between the ages of about eleven to, oh ... now, peaking at roughly fourteen and steadily decreasing since then. I can think of about a million things that happened and a million emotions that I was privy to that I want to cut right out of my body or squash down so deep that they transfer by heat to VHS, crawl out of the television and murder unsuspecting teenagers who watch it on summer camp. I've done so well at pretending my childhood never happened these last few years that the sad thing is, I'm starting to forget it. And if I don't start remembering soon, it'll be gone forever. Lamott had her own painful childhood that she wanted to repress, but instead she has mined it for material. Therapy and countless novels, all rolled into one!

I could go on and on about the fantastic stuff in Bird by Bird. It's very funny and very real, and I recommend it to everyone writing a novel and hoping to be published. Which I suspect is all of you, judging by all the NaNoWriMo-ing going on.

Here is the poem by Clive James, one of the many ways in you can quiet that green-eyed monster we all are from time to time.

'The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered'

The book of my enemy has been remaindered 
And I am pleased.

In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.

Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles

One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book --
For behold, here is that book

Among these ranks and banks of duds,

These ponderous and seeminly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered

And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,

The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week

His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys

The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,

The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper

Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,

His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyart with a forlorn skyscraper

Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,

His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,

His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretense,
Is there with Pertwee's Promenades and Pierrots--

One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,

His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs,

A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
"My boobs will give everyone hours of fun".

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,

Though not to the monumental extent

In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error--
Nothing to do with merit.

But just supposing that such an event should hold

Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

Clive James


  1. I read this when I took Creative Writing in college. Granted, I had some problems with the class, but this book was so worth discovering. I haven't read Stephen King's book yet, but if he says so, then fine, I'll go sit my butt down and write. :) Been trying to do that for a while and just can't seem to find the discipline. Maybe I have to revist Bird by Bird to get back in the groove. Great post!

  2. Another great post-as always. (Sorry I don't always leave comments. I do read them) And, I have a blog award for you (If you want it) You can pick it up here: