Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

This is a superb little book, with excellent writing advice for anyone who has ever written or wanted to write. It is funny, wise, and most importantly helpful. My recommendation is to treat yourself to a copy of this book. You won't be sorry that you did.

The title of the book comes from a story the author tells about her older brother when he was about ten years old. He was trying to get a report on birds written that he had been procrastinating over for 3 months. It was due the next day. They were gathered at their family cabin and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds. He was absolutely immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead of him. Her father sat down beside him, put his arm around her brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

The book is split into five parts. Part One: Writing (which includes Getting Started, Short Assignments, Shitty First Drafts, Perfectionism, Character, Plot, Dialogue, etc.); Part Two: The Writing Frame of Mind (which includes Looking Around, The Moral Point of View, Jealousy, etc.); Part Three: Help Along the Way (which includes Index Cards, Writing Groups, Writer's Block, etc.); Part Four: Publication and Other Reasons to Write (which includes Finding your Voice, Giving, etc.); and Part Five: The Last Class.

And lest you think that being published is the end all and be all of writing, let me quote just one small part of this delightful guide through a writer's world:

"Almost every single thing you hope publication will do for you is a fantasy, a hologram--it's the eagle on your credit card that only seems to soar. What's real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you'll get better. At times when you're working, you'll sit there feeling hung over and bored, and you may or may not be able to pull yourself up out of it that day. But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And so if one of your heart's deepest longings is to write, there are ways to get your work done, and a number of reasons why it is important to do so.

And what are those reasons again?

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. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don't get in real life--wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean. Aren't you?"

Yes, I am.

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