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Review: Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird is a cauldron of humanity standing on three legs: humor, passionate devotion to writing, and despair. The humor cancels out the despair. It is the naked devotion that connects so strongly that it is hard to reject her. Yet I am a writer, and the three fires do not burn so wantonly in me, so in the end, I read it as a story.
The book is filled with one-liners reminiscent of standup shtick. Page 1: “The very first thing I tell my new students…is that good writing is about telling the truth…Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little.” Funny. Choosing sheep lice instead of, say, cockroaches or oxen is amusing, but humor should be organic and this imaginary comparison is tacked on without any meaning in this context. It is uninstructive in a book which introduces itself as “Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” Though I laughed out loud many times, it was as if I were reading two books – laughing at the funny one but unenlightened by the “instructions on writing and life” one. The instructions are not wrong, but the intellectual underpinnings are feeble.
Not all writers live in this cauldron, though we all have our peeves. I continue pissed off by the people who told me I was not a “real writer” because my work had never been published. They patted me on the head and said, “Write if you enjoy it.” Lamott, too, believes that empowering people to write their thoughts and imaginings contributes to lucidity, love, community, family, and culture whether or not there is money or prestige attached. The callow world also idolizes the chef who invented organic foams without honoring the home cook who nurtures the family bonds at the dining room table and keeps us healthy.
Lamott presents the writing life as one hysterical, frustrating day after another. I, on the other hand, get up early because I am awakened by thoughts that blossom at the break of day. My brain leavens them throughout the night and I awaken with long passages already alive. I have to put them down and not doing so would be torture. Lamott’s suggestion to always keep index cards at hand is an excellent one, but my thoughts are long, they lead from one thing to another. No index card could hold them. I have to get up and type. Women who are master gardeners or talented home decorators must wake up with a new idea about how to control the aphids or hang the curtains in the living room. It feels demeaning to others to say that my inspirations as a writer are superior. They are simply my way of contributing.
Lamott is self-deprecating, bashing herself every which way, including her teaching abilities. Her students, she says, “Show up for the first day…looking like bright goofy ducklings who will follow me anywhere.” But, they soon learn that “telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.” This is where she raises writing above other human struggles – she considers it the search for truth. Surely there is a way to recognize that without making every writer the Oracle of Delphi.
Recently, I taught an adult school class which began with 15 eager students and ended with 9. I am sorry that the students who couldn’t get anything down on paper dropped out. True, their eyes had been bigger than their stomachs, but part of their failure to thrive is my fault. I had never taught a class of aspiring adults before and maybe I scared them off. The students who stayed had a good experience, but I can do better next time. I don’t drink whiskey or lose sleep over it. Who was it who said that life is a journey? Lamott thrives on self-deprecation, but her need should not be considered an “instruction on writing and life.”
Kudos for the chapter named “Plot Treatment,” on page 85. She tells of writing a book, then writing it again and again, taking it to her publisher and having him say it wasn’t quite there yet. That’s when she binged on whiskey and cocaine all night, came back in the morning and, pacing back and forth in the fog of a hideous hangover, talked out the book to her publisher. He tells her to come back with THAT book, the one she talked out, not the one on paper.
Hemingway-like dependence on substances would be useless to me, but yes, the frustration does get bad sometimes. A skilled editor can see what is wrong with a book, but can’t tell the writer how to fix it. You’re out there dangling in the breeze. I usually remember that when I wrote that passage I knew I was applying a bandage to a soft spot. Most readers will gloss over the soft spots and try to please you by saying, “I liked it,” but to improve, you need someone who is empowered to press you to do better. When pressed, I become restless and ashamed. It feels as if someone were applying physical pressure to exactly that place on my arm where the fracture happened. The worst arguments my husband and I have are over just such soft spots. He would be forgiven if he broke a plate or two in the face of my intransigence, but he just stands there calmly repeating that I have to fix it. I dread these moments of unbearable creative pain, but realize that chefs, cabinetmakers, teachers, politicians, physicists, doctors, parents, singers, and all people who try to do great things feel the same pain. The writer’s pain is no different.
My recommendation is by all means to read Bird by Bird. Take the advice, enjoy the humor, and gird yourself for the despair. Lamott has survived her despair and by her example (perhaps in spite of herself) reminds us that you won’t be facing the existential maw, you’ll just be joining the club.