Lamott, Anne. (1994). Bird By Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life. NY: Anchor.
In a series of personal essays and anecdotes, Lamott muses on what it’s like to be a writer. It’s not really an “instruction,” as the title says, but more aimed at inspiration. It would be an excellent read for beginning writers who live in the delusion that they are the next Faulkner or Fitzgerald waiting to be discovered. Lamott’s down-to-earth and often humorous advice is that first, you probably aren’t good enough to get published, and second, if you do get published, it will go unnoticed. She doesn’t quite get around to saying it, but implies that recognition for writers has never been strictly a meritocracy. The NYTimes list is about the publishing industry, not about writing. Instead, Lamott writes, remember that writing is its own reward, so define success as satisfaction and be happy with that. This is true and good advice, if blindingly obvious.
Lamott insists that the main goal of writing is therapy, a highly questionable assumption. Her opening chapter is all about retrieving childhood memories and arranging them into a coherent narrative. Even though all writing is autobiographical to some extent, most writers are interested in using the tools of craft to say something meaningful in an artistic way; or even more simply, to tell an entertaining story that people enjoy reading. Self-disclosure is not the point of most writing, and in fact, as this book itself illustrates, can become tedious. Nobody cares about an author’s life as much as the author does. For a beginning writer who “can’t think of anything to say,” mining one’s childhood might be a useful exercise, but as a principle for writing in general, I think Lamott veered into the eccentric with this one.
Still, her overall advice for writers is valid: embrace humility, appreciate the joy of writing, acknowledge the difficulty of it, and accept the chaos and uncertainty that is creativity. She does offer one unexpected psychological insight at the very end which I think is true. Writers are angry people. Channel that anger into writing what you care about, to give your writing heart, she says.
Lamott’s practical writing advice centers on a charming anecdote. If you are ever overwhelmed by having to write a report on birds, you should be methodical and persistent; just take it bird by bird.