Bestseller Bird by Bird is a quasi memoir and instructional craft book for budding writers. Alongside Stephen King’s On Writing, it’s the most lauded and cited book about writing. Anne Lamott trades in honesty and uses clear, tactile examples from her writing life to illustrate her points. There are some wonderfully evocative passages about human nature and the realities of life as a working writer.
I’ll give it this: Bird by Bird has personality, which, I suspect, is why it’s endured the way it has. Lamott has wit and a knack for metaphor. However, I’m in no hurry to investigate her fiction, as my reaction to Bird by Bird was largely negative. Frankly, I found Lamott unbearably smug. Am I alone in this? Did no one else find her faux self-deprecation a chore and her humour grating? (Just on this, her humour: It starts innocently enough, but morphs into this ugly, sarcastic crutch. How did no one else notice this?) Similarly, some of her admissions made me question her professionalism (see: the chapter ‘Jealousy’, which had me shaking my head in astonishment). When this happened, I could no longer respect her as a writing authority, rendering the book a failure.
Unsurprisingly, Bird by Bird took me an eternity to finish. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, though concede its uses. It was required reading for my course. Most of its advice was second nature to me, but it was nice to have it reaffirmed so eloquently.
A quick aside: I’ve always wondered why intermediate-level writers persist with reading craft books. Don’t get me wrong: studying the mechanics of writing is important. It’s just that, lately, I’m finding writing advice rote and tedious – which is maybe why I’ve ceased dispensing it on this blog. There are myriad resources available for those that need it, so my current view is why perpetuate a dialogue when the inevitable consensus will be ‘Don’t break rules unless with stylistic intent’.
Most professional writers discourage the romanticisation of writing, but breaking it down to bare mechanics feels equally reductive. Frankly, I don’t want to understand everything about creative practice. It’s like intellectualising faith, or watching one of those jerky, fun-spoiling, tell-all magicians.
Talking too much about writing can become an act of procrastination, a means to defer the completion of actual work. This happens a lot online. I’m certainly guilty of it (doing it right now, actually). My theory about craft books is that we read them hoping to uncover secrets that will redefine the process. You know the adage: practice makes perfect. But practise is boring and in this, the attention-deficit Internet Age, the age of instant gratification, we are on a perpetual lookout for shortcuts.
Writing is often agonising and elusive, even for those with lots of experience. Professionals from other industries must scratch their heads at this. In what other career would workers complete the same daily task without it getting easier? Surely we must be doing it wrong. Permit me to stare longingly into the virtual distance. There has to be … another way. This, I think, is the real appeal, the reason we consume books and blogs full of reinterpreted writing advice. Just a thought.
Now back to the bloody bird book. Credit where it’s due: I enjoyed Lamott’s advice about being present, observant and in tune with your surroundings. I mean, it’s all kind of common sense-y, but it resonates (much like an empty platitude in a pop song – speaking of which: 5 Seconds of Summer!? Younger Than Yesterday!? What’s with all these nonsensical band names straining to evoke nostalgia?). Write from a place of truth, she advises. Draw on real emotion, real experience. Your past is the perfect source material. Use the painful stuff, the embarrassing stuff. Risk being disliked (Lamott has! </snark>). Resist cliché and refrain from writing obliquely. Don’t be fraudulent. Don’t settle for hackneyed approximations of emotion, which is sort of what you’ll get if you draw inspiration from bad TV drama instead of real life. This all struck me as great advice (though, to play Devil’s Advocate, it’s great advice for literary fiction writers. Consider your project. This level of intensity wouldn’t necessarily befit all genres), therefore it’s easy to recommend this book to this to new or young writers.
It’s a shame, then, that Bird by Bird’s lasting impression isn’t its great craft advice. The positives are outweighed, marred, by Lamott’s juvenile responses to some of the situations she’s encountered in her professional life. She is petty and riddled with insecurities, qualities which noticeably colour her work. I appreciate her candour, but don’t think instructing budding writers to wallow in jealousy or allow unchecked emotions to override their professionalism is healthy. Reflecting, all I see is a missed opportunity. I wish she’d approached Bird by Bird from an angle of objectivity. Parts of it reinforce the misconception that creative types are prima donnas, prone to breakdowns.
In my eyes, separating your work from yourself is healthy. I have to wonder then how Lamott, who chairs a writer’s group and wears her heart way out on her sleeve, responds to criticism. By her own admission, the barest whiff of it sends her into a week-long tailspin. Some might say this makes her a real, relatable (and fallible) human being – I suspect this is why the book has resonated with so many – but I felt embarrassed and wished she’d conducted herself better. I didn’t want to stoop to assessing Lamott’s character here, but it’s such an intrinsic part of the book. Let’s just say I sympathise with the friends, publishers, agents and editors who must navigate her moods. I couldn’t fathom dropping off the radar because my publisher took issue with some plot points in an early draft, or because a hardworking fellow writer found deserved success. Life’s too short for such petulance – and writing isn’t the bloody Olympics!
Lamott has a spiritualist approach to her craft. She asserts that the only worthwhile writing is that which comes from the deepest, truest recess within. Writing isn’t Real Writing unless it’s some painful, super serious excavation of the soul. While well-meaning, I’m not sure I agree, and wish she’d been more inclusive of other approaches. I accept that there are different approaches, but am concerned by the scope of Lamott’s influence (after all, this book is widely prescribed as the modern-day writing bible). Certainly, it’s a worthwhile read, but King’s On Writing is more palatable, objective, and – overlooking King’s aversion to plotting – it is probably the safer choice for impressionable new writers.