The final semester of my senior year had come, and one thing stood between me and a Bachelor of Arts in English—the dreaded capstone course. Part thesis, part professor’s pet project, the capstone centred on a theme such as “The Role of the Fool in Shakespeare” or “Archetypal Literary Theory.” Sometimes it proved interested; often it did not. I ended up with one of the latter, a nebulously named course titled “Life Writing” that was helmed by a professor who refused to define the topic (“Life Writing is whatever you want it to be”), had more ambition than sense (“If you don’t read every word of the twenty-three assigned books, you cannot expect a good grade”), and possessed an ego to match (“I am the god of this class”). Not exactly enjoyable. But somewhere in the middle of it, I found something that was: Anne Lamott’s delightfully messy writing manual Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life.
If it sounds strange to have read a book about writing narratives in a course that dealt with autobiography, well, join the club. But Bird By Bird fit the bill in that it intersperses Lamott’s literary dictums with bits about her own life. Well, more than just bits, really. Lamott lays on the personal detail pretty thick. Page after page can pass before she breaks away from discussing the execrable psychological short story she penned as a child or how she trained her toddler to recite anti-war chants on cue or her cancer-stricken friend Pammy’s final days and gets back to the practical stuff.
This will annoy those who want technical details on the finer points of plotting or easily avoided grammatical errors. Two things, though, keep the book from becoming an exercise in self-indulgence, the first being that the stories usually relate quite well to whatever Lamott wants to expound. Take the chapter “Short Assignments,” for example. To illustrate how writers need to tackle tiny tasks, she relates how her then-ten-year-old brother was trying to complete a humongous report on birds in a single evening. Panic threatened, but her father sat down, “put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
The second is Lamott’s delightfully screwball sense of humor. “The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth,” she says. “We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write very little.” Rare is the volume on writing that can wring a smile from you. Bird By Bird squeezes out belly laughs, and in doing so, reminds us that writing involves more than toil and tedium. It contains joy, too.
My thanks to Loren Eaton for his review: this is of one of my favourite writing books. There is also an audio version of the book called Word by Word, a pun which doesn't quite work for me but which fills me with delight, nevertheless.