Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Book Review)

You might be wondering why a book about writing is being reviewed by an art teacher. Well, I initially came across this book just as I was reflecting on writing for this site. I wanted to become a better writer so what better way, I reasoned, than to look for help from a writer. I didn’t want something dry or academic. I know the rudiments after all. I wanted to read something inspiring. When I read a blurb about Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, I was highly intrigued. So I hopped over to my local library and reserved a copy.

I had not read anything by Anne Lamott before. Not that that should be surprising since I’m a slow reader (always have been) and there are millions of authors out there! Yet, I feel fortunate to have read this timely book written way back in 1994. It made me laugh and it made me tear up. A talented writer, Lamott speaks on her craft with both brevity and sagacity. This book is not at all remote as the author weaves elements from her own life throughout. Truly, it seems, she would have it no other way.

Bird by Bird?

Lamott reveals the title of her book comes from an interaction between her brother and father. Ten years old at the time and having procrastinated as most ten year olds are apt to do, Lamott’s brother was lost amid the task of writing a report on birds. Seeing his son in turmoil, his father places a consoling arm around his shoulder and says, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” She sites this vignette as fact to the overwhelming feelings we all can get when beginning something. Lamott specifically was addressing her students experience with writing. Yet, as with many parts of her book, the truths she reveals point to our broader, shared human experience.

Setup

The book is outlined as I imagine one of her courses would be (she’s a teacher, too!). Anne Lamott is not interested in wrapping the craft of writing in mystery. No, writing is hard work she says over and over. Emotionally laden and fraught with land mines both psychological (think writer’s block) and real (think publishers), the writer’s role is to speak his/her truth through the of act of sharing experiences through writing. Lamott does her sharing in deeply powerful ways in this book as she treats the reader as a student. She leads you through her process, setting expectations to encourage and nurture, as well as educate you about the hurdles ahead.

Part One: Writing

Part Two: The Writing Frame of Mind

Part Three: Help Along the Way

Part Four: Publication—And Other Reasons to Write

Part Five: The Last Class

At times blunt, Lamott covers each part of Bird by Bird with great aplomb speaking from her experience as both a published writer and a teacher to students at all levels. Her advice throughout the book is wonderful. Although I’m not looking to become a published writer (at least, not through a book), the material was engaging and I already started thinking through applications as I write for this blog.

The Final Word?

Read it, regardless of your writing inclinations because you will learn about yourself, life, and the world of writing.

Quotable Quotes

Characters

In talking about the growth of characters, Lamott relays a story about her best friend Pammy who died of cancer. Her recollection is poignant and touching as both a life truth and a writing truth:

Dying people can teach us this [allowing characters to grow and become] most directly. Often the attributes that define them drop away—the hair, the shape, the skills, the cleverness. And then it turns out that the packaging is not who that person has really been all along. Without the package, another sort of beauty shines through.

She ends this chapter—in a way I appreciate most by weaving thinking, living, and writing together—by stating:

That’s how real life works, in our daily lives as well as in the convalescent home and even at the deathbed, and this is what good writing allow us to contuse sometimes. You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness, and then some surprising connections appear.

Wonder

My blog’s name, The Poetry of Seeing, hints at developing and maintaining a sense of wonder so when I read this next quote, it resonated with me quite a bit.

This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of—please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds.

At the bottom of the very same page, she continues:

There is ecstasy in paying attention.

Only recently I was lamenting to my wife how I struggle with getting my young students to stop, look, and listen. My first rule in my class is ‘Listen First” because we come to fully know what is expected and how to proceed when we do.

Sadly, I feel, at times, that I do not get to teach a topic well with my young art students because so many of them lack attentiveness. Without it, I feel like I must settle for pushing through so I can, at least, get something done.

Remembering

As I get older and find photos of my kids, I am both joyful and saddened; joyful because we were able to freeze a moment in time, saddened because life moves so quickly and tender years fly by. So, I laughed to myself when I read:

We have so much to remember these days. So we make all these lists, filled with hope that they will remind us of all the important things to do and buy and mail, all the important calls we need to make, all the ideas we have for short stories or articles. And yet by the time you get around to everything on any one list, you’re already behind on another.

On Living

When her friend Pammy’s cancer took a turn for the worse, Lamott reflects on something her friend’s doctor told her and how it reminds her daily to put into perspective the reality of writer’s block:

‘Watch her carefully right now,’ she said, ‘because she’s teaching you how to live.’

I remind myself of this when I cannot get any work done: to live as if I am dying, because the truth is we are all terminal on this bus. To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence. Time is so full for people who are dying in a conscious way, full in the way that life is for children. They spend big round hours. So instead of staring miserably at the computer screen dying to will my way into having a breakthrough, I say to myself, “Okay, hmmm, let’s see. Dying tomorrow. What should I do today?” Then I can decide to read Wallace Stevens for the rest of the morning or go to the beach or just really participate in ordinary life. Any of these will begin the process of filling me back up with observations, flavors, ideas, visions, memories.

I love this quote because I have struggled for many years of running-running-running. It hasn’t done anything for me. Thanks, Anne, for the reminder.

(Artistic) Props

There is (seemingly has been for years, actually!) a debate in art education circles about doing ‘in-the-manner-of’ type of artwork or copying someone else’s work or style of working. Well, apparently, this debate goes on in writing circles too! Lamott comments in the chapter, Finding Your Voice:

I heard a tape once in which an actor talked about trying to find God in the modern world and how, left to our own devices, we seek instead all the worldly things—possessions, money, looks, and power—because we think they will bring us fulfillment. But this turns out to be a joke, because they are just props, and when we choice out of this life, we have to give them all back to the great prop master in the sky. “They’re just on loan,” he said. “They’re not ours.” This tape changed how I felt about my students emulating their favorite writers. It helped me see that is is natural to take on someone else’s style, that it’s a prop that you use for a while until you had to give it back. And it just might take you to the thing that is not on loa, the thing that is real and true: your own voice.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. One thing throughout the book that I appreciated so much is how Anne Lamott makes these bridges between her personal experience and that of her writing craft.

On Connection

But so many of us can be soothed by writing: think of how many times you have opened book, read one line, and said, “Yes!” And I want to give people that feeling, too, of connection, communion.

For me, teaching art is about connection, too. I offer safe harbor for my students and look for my class to become an opportunity to share themselves and their spirit.

Artistry

Probably one of my favorite quotes comes at the end of the book in a chapter aptly titled, The Last Class:

You can either set brick as a laborer or as an artist. You can make the work a chore, or you can have a good time. You can do it the way you used to clear the dinner dishes when you were thirteen, or you can do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with a level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.

This quote resonated with me as I thought of my role as an art educator (not to mention husband, father, friend). The challenges are present everyday. Elements of this book inspired me to meet those. Perhaps you’ll find it inspiring too?

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