“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, which was due the next day…he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” – Anne Lamont
While hunting for something else, I came upon my copy old of, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” 1994, by Anne Lamott. Those who appreciate Natalie Goldberg’s reflections on writing will enjoy Lamott.
“I dropped out [of college] at nineteen to become a famous writer. I moved back to San Francisco and became a famous Kelly Girl instead. I was famous for my incompetence and weepiness. I wept with boredom and disbelief.”
Two things strike you right away about Lamott on writing: she is very funny and she is a firm believer in telling one’s own unique truth. This is a theme she returns to again and again. Lamott has been telling her truths since her first novel, Hard Laughter, 1980, a largely autobiographical portrait of her eccentric family as her father was dying of a brain tumor.
Getting published was something Lamott had dreamed of since she realized as a child, that her father, the writer, was neither “unemployed or mentally ill.” When Hard Laughter was published, three years after her father’s death, Lamott realized that public success was not what nourished her:
“I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience…this did not happen for me. The months before a book comes out of the chute are, for most writers, right up there with the worst life has to offer.”
“I…try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”
Lamott has taught writing at UC Davis and at various workshops. Bird by Bird mirrors the advice and methods she gives her students.
I have not read all of her sections on the mechanics of writing. Suffice to say that I find her introspective style better suited to illuminating the twists and turns of the process itself than conveying nuts and bolts information. Like Goldberg, I think the essay is the medium where Lamott really shines, and in another parallel, her most recent writings on spirituality are what I value most.
In Travelling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 2000, Lamott holds nothing back in describing how her alcoholic bottom led her to Christianity – the last place, as a life-long bohemian, that she wanted to be.
“I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there…after a while, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus…and I was appalled. I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends. I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian…I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squished my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.”
Travelling Mercies relates how Lamott, as a newly sober alcoholic and single mother who had never been to church, sets out to follow her truth where ever it may lead. People raised as Christians may not have wrestled with all the questions Lamott has to face, beginning with how she’s supposed to find a church to nourish both her and her son. It continues with all the issues we face in living day to day. What do we make of the death of friends, of loss, of a son who doesn’t want to go to church, or announces, “I wish I had never been born?” These and other questions about living her faith seven days a week have led Lamott to write two other books on spirituality, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, 2006, and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, 2007. My wife is reading that one now, and I’ve flipped through the contents and may borrow it when she is done.
In a prophetic passage in Bird by Bird, Lamott laid out a credo for her writing students that she continues to follow:
“Truth seems to want expression. Unacknowledged truth saps your energy and keeps you and your characters wired and delusional. But when you open the closet door and let what was inside out, you can get a rush of liberation and even joy. If we can believe in the Gnostic gospel of Thomas…Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth can destroy you.”
If you haven’t discovered Anne Lamott’s work, I suggest you sample her titles in a bookstore or on Amazon, and see what she has to offer. Her unique take on the life around her can bring you up short and shift your perspective on where you are and what you are doing.