Happy Twentieth Birthday, "Bird by Bird"

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Tribute Essay by Kathy Curto

Why Anne Lamott’s Iconic Guide Still Resonates

 

My writing mentor Steve Lewis happens to be the author of seven books and father of seven children. He’s a creative guy in all respects and not one to coddle my melodramatic cries of angst. Recently I told him, “I planned to revise that chapter we talked about. And I had every intention of making those revisions in the introduction—really, I did! But I got sidetracked.”

Steve just shook his head. “We can talk about this all day long,” he said. “The bottom line is this: You’ve got to put your ass in the chair and write.”

"Bird by Bird" cover

We both laughed. But everybody knows that what lies under humor is hard truth.

Twenty years ago, Anne Lamott launched her version of that truth in Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Twenty years later, sentence makers and truth tellers still worship this book. My paperback copy, first purchased in 2004, is tattered and coffee-stained with faded Post-it Notes peeking from the top. Its pages are sprinkled with bright blue stars and underlined words, sentences, and phrases (I’m a fan of blue ink for scribbling notes in books). My Bird by Bird also retains the faint but crisp smell of eucalyptus-scented bath powder, the result of countless late-night soaks with Lamott’s wisdom in tow.

To say this book offers instructions is a serious understatement. For this worshipper, it offers literary lifelines straight from the heart. As Lamott says in her opening: 

What follows in this book is what I’ve learned along the way, what I pass along to each new batch of students. This is not like other writing books, some of which are terrific. It’s more personal, more like my classes. As of today, here is almost every single thing I know about writing.

Lamott is a master at broaching some of the most important issues in a writer’s life, and she introduces these topics in quirky, unexpected ways. Some chapters have names as predictable as “Getting Started” and Short Assignments”; others are titled “School Lunches” and “Broccoli.” This range, from ultralight to industrial, mimics Lamott’s voice and style. She has the skill and compassion to cover big emotions in few words and still pack a punch. And the idiosyncratic recipes she offers are precious and hilarious. 

On perfectionism: “Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California).” 

On strong plot and its similarity to dreams: “Think of your nightly dreams, how smoothly one scene slides into one another, how you don’t roll your closed eyes and say, ‘Wait just a minute—I’ve never shot drugs with Rosalyn Carter, and I don’t even own any horses, let alone little Arabians the size of cats.’”

"Bird by Bird" cover

The book's subtitle does not lie, either. As funny as she is, Lamott is also as self-aware, faith-filled, and honest as they come about the craft and about being human: 

Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. 

Bird by Bird is strong enough to lift up these heavy ideas. When I first read such passages, they went straight to my core—yet then and now, I find Lamott’s perspective on writing exhilarating, not depressing. She asks writers to open up, work hard, and know the job:

To participate requires self-discipline and trust and courage, because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, as my friend Dale puts it, ‘How alive am I willing to be?’

Thank you, Anne Lamott, for keeping us alive.

 


Publishing Information

  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (Pantheon Books, 1994).

Kathy CurtoKathy Curto is an adjunct professor of writing at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Her work has been published in Junk, The Inquisitive Eater, The Asbury Park Press, Italian Americana, VIA-Voices in Italian Americana, Lumina, and several newspapers covering the Hudson Valley.

Kathy’s essays have been featured on NPR as well as in other live performances. In 2006, she was awarded the Kathryn Gurfein Writing Fellowship of Sarah Lawrence College. In 2012, she was selected as one of the cast members of the first NYC Listen to Your Mother show, a national series of original live readings. Kathy lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband and their four children. For more information, visit Kathy Curto’s website.

Editor’s Note: Steve Lewis is a TW contributing writer and columnist.

Comments

First, thanks for the nod,

First, thanks for the nod, Kathy. And second, this is a wonderful piece of writing.

Anyway, although I am indeed a passionate advocate of the Ass-In-The-Chair School of Writing, but every once in a while I see so clearly how getting that ass out of the chair can do metaphysical wonders to the work we do.

So ... last week, while I was supposed to be working on a piece that would have a nice payday at the end of it, I spent the day working on a poem with no hope of a payday. Anyway, my rear end didn't get out of the chair all morning and into the afternoon--and while I shouldered my way into what I thought was a pretty good poem, there was definitely something wrong, something missing ... something I decided I would work on the next day (when I would again supposedly be working on a piece that would have a nice payday at the end of it). So I hoisted myself out of the chair and drove over to the Shawangunk Grasslands and wandered around those enormous gorgeous fields ... and thought about the harrier hawks and kestrels flying around ... and then my thoughts turned to death ... and love ... and loss ... and baseball ... and sex ... and sex in fields ... and Clover's conception behind a barn ... and a dozen other things ... and then the missing images flew across my line of sight that would complete the poem ... images that would allow it to soar beyond the confines of the page, transforming base words into precious visions.

That's it---just the rambling thought for today, inspired by your good writing. Thank you.

This passage actually makes

This passage actually makes me feel guilty to my inner self for never putting pen to paper. There is a certain part of a persons soul that cannot be unlocked without writing. I love that perfectionism quote because this quality is the lock that must be unlatched in order to pick up the pen. All of your writings make me feel like I'm in the movie "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" because they have a way of bringing me closer to the ground. Keep inspiring Kathy!

Hi, Kathy: What a great

Hi, Kathy: What a great tribute - and a reminder that Lamott's honesty, advice, and hard-won wisdom is still there on the shelf, always ready for motivate and inspire (and reassure, and cajole, and entertain). It's time to re-read Bird by Bird!

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