When I decided to get back into writing 13 years ago, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was the first of many books on writing that I bought and read, but so far it’s the only one I’ve reread . . . and reread . . . and reread. This is at least the fourth time I’ve read it all the way through, and I’ve gone back dozens more times to glance at certain lines and sections.
Lamott has a very particular point of view in this book, and I periodically need to be reminded of two important things: (1) writing has to be an end in itself; because (2) publishing is not the holy grail.
There’s nothing unique about these positions. Most writing books I’ve read include some variation on both themes, and like the others, Lamott brings her own experiences and biases. She wrote this book mid-career, having already published a half-dozen books, so she already knew that publishing didn’t change her life in the way she expected and knew that the writing itself — especially those rare, breathless moments when everything just works — was the real reason to write. It’s too painful and frustrating and maddening, too unpredictable and mostly non-lucrative. She also knows the only way to keep going is to just keep going, bird by bird, short assignment by short assignment, one-inch picture frame by one-inch picture frame. Sit down every day to write, even when you don’t want to.
It’s just as well that she doesn’t dwell too much on publishing, because this book is already dated to a certain degree. She clearly wrote this pre-Internet, so there’s no mention of email or Google or Craigslist or online writing groups or self-publishing. She chooses to focus on her own frustrations to show that the rest of us are not alone or unique in our failures, chooses to write about her own successes to show that hard work can pay off, even if not for long and not in the way one might expect. She doesn’t try to dampen our enthusiasm so much as temper our expectations and harden us against the stark reality that very few people make a good living writing books. So if we still insist on giving it a go, we’d better learn to love the process. Big dreams are fine, important even, but we might think about keeping them in a box so they don’t distract us from the very real work required to get there.
I’ve been re-energized this week since rereading . I’ve been taking joy in the simple act of sitting down, giving myself short assignments, and finishing them. I have a renewed sense purpose and direction. I feel like a writer again, and that’s all I really needed.
(This review was originally posted as part of Cannonball Read 10: Sticking It to Cancer, One Book at a Time.)