Bird by Bird and Other Writing by Anne Lamott

“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.

Anne Lamott

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.

How Much is Too Much?

I have to thank Ceinwenn for this topic.  He or she (I can’t be sure, since the link takes me to a password protected forum) commented on my previous post, Three Requirements of a Book Review (?).  Ceinwenn felt I had given away too much plot info in my review of  David Baldacci’s First Family.  It’s entirely possible.  Several comments mentioned avoiding spoilers, something I have not considered as much as I will now.

In my own defense, I would cite the similarities of a synopsis, which you use as a design and advertising tool with your own fiction, and the plot exposition section of a book review.  In a synopsis, you must reveal what happens; you can’t leave an agent or editor guessing.  In a book review you must not.  Got it.  Thanks.

But that wasn’t what I really wanted to talk about here.  Ceinwenn’s comment spun me off thinking of several recent things I’ve said about blogging, and specifically my discovery that the public act of blogging is far more stimulating than the private act of writing in a journal.  The public nature of blogging makes it challenging in terms of deciding how much self-revelation is right.

My wife has commented on my tendency to get too academic and boring, which is an easy path for me to take.  On the other hand, I remember a psych teacher who was Mr. Sensitive-Self-Revelation, and it wasn’t a pretty sight!  A remember a very calm and poised young woman walking out of the class, shaking her head and making barfing noises.

You get what I’m saying.  As a blogger I want to be real and I enjoy the same quality in others, but I’ve used the delete key on posts that went to far.  I might write about an embarrassing moment, especially if there is humor involved, but I’m probably not going to post my most mortifying-ever experience.  You know the one – you’re driving along and it comes to mind and you slink down in your seat in case the nearby drivers can read your mind.

Some topics rouse caution immediately, notably politics and religion.  Mary and I have a couple of long-term friends that are long-term because we learned early on to stay off these topics.  Here on this blog I circle both politics and religion, but I keep more of a distance than I would personally like to.  Still, because I really dislike door to door religion or candidate salespeople, I don’t want to risk using this space to invade anyone’s right to decide for themselves.  Fortunately, tonight I get to quote someone brilliant on a political topic.

I’m traveling.  As a matter of fact, I’m attending a two day intensive teaching session let by a Tibetan Buddhist teacher of international renown (forbidden topic #1).  I got back to my room and flipped on the news just in time to see the President’s message that a compromise is in the works. (forbidden topic #2).  Whew!  No one with their head screwed on right could wish to see our country in default, and yet, the whole situation is icky!  Have you ever gone for a swim in a lake or river that was too full of alge?  You come out feeling slimy.

It’s far to easy to blame someone else, but none of us are innocent in this mess.  We elected these clowns, most of whom are doing what they think we want them to do in order to get re-elected.  It cuts a lot deeper than that, and once I get home, I may quote from an article I found that has a lot to say about this dance of the public and the politicians.

Meanwhile, here is the brilliant comment I promised, from Walt Kelly, creator of the wonderful comic strip, “Pogo.”  This particular panel was printed in 1971, on the occasion of the first Earth Day, but its message took on a life of its own that goes beyond any single issue.  If we could learn one thing from this latest crisis, this would be my vote.  We, as a nation, will not be destroyed from without, goes the common wisdom, often repeated over the last decade – but clearly we can do it to ourselves.

The World as Shapeshifter: A Hindu Parable

Generalizations are dangerous, and here comes a big one:  western cosmologies posit a substantial world because God made it.  Eastern traditions declare the world to be illusory because God dreams it.  This naturally shapes traditional tales of the east, where the emphasis is not on sorting out truth and illusion, but waking up altogether.  As one online Zen teacher quipped, “Strictly speaking, the phrase, ‘true thought,’ is an oxymoron.”

Vishnu Dreams the Universe

Quips aside, the Hindu tradition asserts that nothing is more difficult or more important than waking up to the illusory nature of ordinary appearances, which makes true seem false and false seem true. The name for this cosmic illusion is Maya, beautifully illustrated in the following story, in which Krishna, an incarnation of God, gives his disciple, Narada, an experience of Maya.  The one thing worth noting at the outset is that Narada was already a fully enlightened being; the webs of illusion can even snare a sage.


One day as they were out walking, Narada asked Krishna to explain the nature of Maya.  Krisha replied, “Narada, Maya cannot be explained, it can only be experienced.  Come with me.”

Krishna led them to a desert.  Narada asked what a desert had to do with anything, and Krishna said, “Just wait.”

They walked on until Krishna collapsed and said, “Narada, my friend, I can’t go any farther.  Will you get me some water?”

Narada walked on until he came to a village.  At the well, a beautiful young woman drew him some water.  Narada was so taken with her, he followed her home, and was welcomed by her father, the headman of the village.  Before long, Narada asked for her hand in marriage.  Her father agreed, on the condition that Narada stay in the village and live in the family home.

Shortly after the wedding, the girl’s father died, and Narada became headman of the village.  He prospered, and in time, four children were born, but just at the height of his success, a devastating cyclone blew through the land.  Narada put his family in a boat but it capsized in the flood, and his wife and children were lost.

The poor man crawled onto shore and collapsed in the mud, lamenting.  “My wife is gone, my children are dead!  How can I live without them?”

Just then he found himself at the feet of Krishna who said, “Narada, did you remember my water.”


It just seems wrong to add anything to a story like this, so I won’t.

Happy Imbolc, St. Brigid’s Day, Candlemas, Groundhog Day.

Our Celtic ancestors marked the changing seasons not by solstice and equinox days, which divide the year into quarters, but with the “cross-quarter days” which fall between the astronomical events.  Seasons figured in this way more closely match our experience in the northern temperate zones.  Winter begins at Samhaim (Halloween) and ends on Imbolc, the first day of spring, February 2.  Imbolc or Oimelc are Gaelic words that refer to the lactation of ewes.  Through most of the British Isles, February was bitterly cold, yet it was also the time when lambs were born and shoots of green grass appeared, events that were heralds of new life and a new year.

This time of year was celebrated in the British isles for at least 3,000 years, the age of several megalithic stone circles in Ireland oriented toward the positions of the sun on Samhain and Imbolc  The people who raised the standing stones were as remote from the Celts as the Celts are from us:  we can only speculate on their motives and the meaning the day had for them.  And even though the word, Imbolc was used in the middle ages in Ireland and Scotland, who and what the Celts celebrated isn’t certain.  The earliest written records of Celtic cosmology come from Julius Ceasar’s commentary on the Gallic War, 51-52 BCE, in which Celtic beliefs are filtered through the Roman perspective.

Even so – even if our stock of “Celtic lore” dates from the 19th century on, when a revival of interest began (think of pre-Raphealite painting and William Morris’ craft movement), that does not mean it is not “authentic.”  When Yeats tramped around Ireland at the turn of the century gathering fairy lore, some of his informants lived such remote lives that they only spoke Gaelic.  How far back can such an oral tradition go?  Pretty far according to most folklorists.

At Imbolc, the maiden goddess, Brigid or Bride supplants the Cailleach, the hag of winter.  Brigid is the goddess of healing, poetry, and smithcraft.  And fire and divination and wisdom and childbirth.  As patron of healing she presides over numerous sacred wells in Ireland and in Britain (where they were renamed for Minerva by the Romans).  To this day, people extinguish old fires and light new ones for the coming year in her honor.

Brigid the goddess was supplanted by Brigid the saint in the Christain era, where she was revered as, “the Mary of the Gaels.”  Numerous miracle stories surround her life.  When just an infant, neighbors saw a fire burning at her house that rose to the heavens.   Though a beautiful woman, Brigid renounced marriage to found dual monastic communities at Cill Dara, now Kildaire, in Ireland.  The nuns tended a sacred flame that burned continuously until the reformation, except for a brief 13th century inteval where a bishop had it extinguished for being too pagan.

Brigid and children, Kildaire, Ireland, copyright,

February 2 has long been celebrated by Christians as Candlemas.  The early church was not the least bit shy about superimposing new festivals over earlier pagan rites.  This day celebrates the Presentation of Jesus at the temple and the purification of the Virgin Mary.  The association of the day with candles comes from the passage where Simeon, an aged seer, recognizes Jesus and proclaims him as “a light for revelation.”  (Luke 2:21).  One website that explores correspondences between Christian and pagan festivals notes that the association of fire or light with this date is widespread through Europe.  In ancient Armenia, Feb. 2 was sacred to Mihr, the god of fire.

Of course no discussion of February 2 would be complete without a reference to Groundhog day, although locally, the staff at the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary points out that groundhogs are not native to the American west.  Here we celebrate Prairie Dog Day.

"Don't drive angry!"

There is also an old Celtic tale involving the Cailleach that explains the importance of weather on Feb. 2.

Legend has it that if she intends to make the winter last a good while longer, she will make sure the weather on Imbolc is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood. Therefore, people are generally relieved if Imbolc is a day of foul weather, as it means the Cailleach is asleep and winter is almost over. (see the Wikipedia link above.)


I don’t keep sheep, but the signs of spring are everywhere. It’s light out at 5:00pm. The sap from the liquid amber tree takes a nightly dump on my car and I swear every year at this time to dig out our car-cover. The buds on the apple tree are a bit late but I expect them any day now. Strangely, pruning the apple tree is one of those rituals of super-bowl sunday I always enjoy.  The super-bowl itself is like the closing rite of winter – after this I won’t want to spend an entire sunday afternoon indoors. In two weeks the almond and walnut trees will be covered with blooms that look like snow when they fall.  Our brown hills will turn emerald green for a month or so.

May everyone have a happy Imbolc and bask in the promise of the return of light and warmth to the earth.

No-Self, Part 3

Jack Kornfield is a widely respected author, teacher of Vipassana or Insight meditation, and a founder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center,

In a classic discussion of spiritual practice in general, and Buddhist practice in particular, A Path With a Heart, Kornfield devotes a chapter, “No Self or True Self?” to the question of identity.  Two key points emerge:  not to take this too literally, and not to be upset by the concept.  He notes that his teacher, Achaan Chah, said, “If you try to understand it intellectually, your head will probably explode.”

Achaan Chah spoke of this paradox one evening in his monastery in a way that was quite astonishing for a Buddhist master.  He said, “You know, all this teaching about ‘no self’ is not true.”  He went on, “Of course, all the teachings about ‘self’ are not true either,” and he laughed.  Then he explained that each of these sets of words, “self” and “no self,” are only concepts or ideas that we use in a very crude approximation, pointing to the mystery of a process that is neither “self” nor “no self”

Another of Kornfield’s teachers, used to laugh at how easily and commonly we would grasp at new identities.  As for himself, he would say, “I am none of that.  I am not this body, so I was never born and will never die.  I am nothing and I am everything.  Your identities make all your problems.  Discover what is beyond them…

Those teachers and authors I have quoted over the last several posts share an interest in an experience I stumbled into – the seemingly counter-intuitive freedom that comes with relaxing our grip on rigid concepts of what we are and what we are not.  At any time this seems troublesome, the real question becomes, who or what feels enhanced or diminished by the words, “self” or “no-self?”

An excellent resource on this and other questions is the Spirit Rock website given above. Under the “Meditation 101” tab is another tab called “Audio Resources,” with links to literally hundreds of recorded talks, given at Spirit Rock and elsewhere, that plunge into seemingly difficult topics like this.

No Self, Part 2

People and things appear solid and self contained. We mostly experience ourselves as if we just appeared on earth the way Superman did – one day the wonder-baby showed up from outer space. Buddhism suggests that this conventional view is just a story, an idea, that doesn’t align very well with what we discover if we pay attention. In other words, Buddha told some different stories, that align more closely with experience, and with happier experience.

Like other great spiritual teachers, the Buddha knew he was telling stories (google on the Heart Sutra), and in particular, he warned his followers, that just because we suffer if we get attached to the story of a separate self, we will also suffer if we attach to the story of no-self – if we take it as a hard truth, a doctrine, a dogma.

Why does belief in a separate self cause suffering? Because it leads to a foxhole existence. Halt, who goes there, friend or foe? It also brings an awareness of physical mortality as loss – we aren’t going to last and neither is anyone we care about. My favorite analogy is one of the simplest: we experience ourselves as waves on the ocean, rushing to shore.  It may be exhilarating when we’re young and death is something that happens to old people, but let a few decades whiz by, and the rocks and shore look a whole lot closer. And aside from that, how often does the sense of separation cause an uncomfortable sense of disconnection?  A million variations on loneliness.  And how much more suffering do we create for ourselves and others in an effort to scratch the itch, dull the pain?

Jerry Uelsmann - Untitled

Buddha tried to shift our understanding. Yes, we are waves for a while, but our true nature is ocean. Ocean changes but it doesn’t go anywhere.  A wave that knows it is and will ever be ocean has a lot less to worry about.


Our true essence goes beyond birth and death.  It can never get sick.  It can never get old.  It is beyond all conditions.  It is like the sky.  This is not a theory.  This is the truth that can only be realized in the realm of enlightened consciousness.  This consciousness is surprisingly accessible to each of us. – Anam Thubten

When that awakening happens there is no longer any desire to become something other than who we are. Every previous idea of who we are vanishes, along with the pain, guilt, and pride associated with our body. In Buddhism this is called no-self. This is the only true awakening. Everything else is a spiritual bypass.– Anam Thubten (emphasis added).

Try this.  Pay attention to your breath in silence.  Look at your mind.  Immediately you see thoughts are popping up.  Don’t react to them.  Just keep watching your mind.  Notice that there is a gap between each thought.  Notice that there is a space between the place where the last thought came to an end and the next one hasn’t arrived.  In this space there is no “I” or “me.”  That’s it. – Anam Thubten (emphasis added).


The sense-of-self is an assumed reality.  Only the idea of “me” separates us from the unconditioned truth of our being…It is possible to simply stop believing in the validity of the view of separation and free it from its isolated position by bringing the view of separation itself into awareness.  This means we are cued to the subtle pain caused by separation, and simply release the thought of separation without picking it back up. – Rodney Smith


I like the rainbow analogy; I can grasp it because we’re not dealing with something that appears to be solid like a person or a rock.

Let’s say a rainbow decided to practice a meditation common to eastern traditions, by asking the question, “Who am I?” and watching what thoughts pop up.  The rainbow starts out believing it is a thing, but what kind of thing?  Strangely enough, if this rainbow is very determined, it will not find anything called “rainbow!”  It sets out to discover its true rainbow self, and simply but it simply cannot be found.

What am I?   –    A rainbow.
What is a rainbow? – Umm…

What am I? – A person.
What is a person? – Umm…wanna check my ID?

If this rainbow has a lot of courage, it will discover it is made of water droplets.  And sunlight, since there are no rainbows until the storm breaks up.  And it is made of the time of day, since there are no rainbows at night.  And it its existence depends on the perspective of people watching.  Drive another five or ten miles down the highway and we may not see the rainbow anymore, though others behind us may.

As Thich Nhat Hahn would say, our rainbow discovers it is made entirely of non-rainbow elements.  It exists, but it is “empty” of a true, essential, rainbow-self.  The poor little guy may freak out at first, and yet…

Rainbow over Carmel Beach

Ultimately, it may be quite a relief. Rainbows don’t live very long.  Not even as long as flies.  Yet water and sunlight and clouds and daytime and people watching the sky are not going away…

To sneak in a Shakespeare quote:

Nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange.



When I first read the March 15, Time Magazine review of Danielle Trussoni’s, Angelology,  (,9171,1969720,00.html )I was struck by the killer premise: the heroic battle of an art historian and a young nun against the Nephilim, nasty, arrogant human-angel hybrids who have dominated world affairs for thousands of years.

When the reviewer compared it favorably to The DaVinci Code, I put it in my Amazon cart. Now I wish I had listened to the 100+ Amazon reviewers who gave the book 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.  They were too generous.

The characters, Sister Evangeline and Verlaine are good enough as action adventure heroes go.  Not every protagonist can be or must be unforgettable.  We like them enough to want to see them prevail.

Where the story really breaks down is in the interminable backstory, that fills the entire middle section of the book.  It slows the action to a full stop, and doesn’t really succeed in creating a suspension of belief.

There are several ways to draw readers into a fictional world that has fantasy elements.  One is simply to spin things that exist in our world, as Brown does in The DaVinci Code. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and DaVinci’s “Last Supper,” are real, and we’re all too ready to believe in nefarious religious cults.

The other classic tactic is to simply drop us into an alternate universe, as Orson Welles did in the famous/infamous War of the Worlds broadcast – simply announce that aliens have landed in New Jersey.

Trussoni begins Angelology in this manner – with a flashback to the discovery of a Nephilim corpse during  the “second angelological expedition” of 1943.  We’re hooked, especially when Nephilim menace Verlaine and Sister Evangeline before we quite know why.  All the elements of an exciting chase and forbidden romance are in place…and then the author manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The story just stops.  If only an editor had reviewed the manuscript and suggested the simple, time tested device for action-adventure tales – sprinkle the backstory into the main action, but keep things moving.  Do not bore your reader to distraction.

Did I say Trussoni failed?  Well that may be an exageration – she has a movie contract and I don’t.  But as a reader, I have to conclude that a writer has failed when I skim or skip huge sections of their book and in the end regret the time and money I have invested in their story.  The following Amazon review by “MWA” sums up my reaction:

This Author may have had an interesting idea but the publisher’s rush to print to catch the wave of Vampire/Mythological/Faux Religious related sales certainly squashed it. The fact that the book is so poorly written is the fault of the people who are supposed to EDIT things prior to publication. This is actually painful to read up until about page 88 and then it is as if the absent editor came back from lunch and skimmed the rest. The worst thing about it is how obviously it is a set-up for another to follow! And a movie deal etc. etc. Enough is enough already.