Bird by Bird: Reviews, reactions, and excerpts

While others who have something to say or who want to be effectual, like musicians or baseball players or politicians, have to get out there in front of people, writers, who tend to be shy, get to stay home and still be public. There are many obvious advantages to this. You don’t have to dress up, for instance, and you can’t hear them boo you right away.

– p. xiv

LL got me Bird by Bird for a present awhile back, thinking I would enjoy Anne Lamott’s writing style and writing advice. Enjoy it? Ha! I adored it. And if there was any way I could carry Anne Lamott around in my pocket, I would do it in a heartbeat.

She voiced the words that every writer hears in the back of his head – words of inadequacy, jealousy, frustration, passion, joy, and more inadequacy. She shared her personal story of why she writes. And she inspired me to keep on keeping on.

Now if only I could have her whispering these sweet nothings from my shirt pocket every hour on the hour.

Writing and life (p. xii)

“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”

How writers differ from everyone else (p. xx)

“I suspect that (my dad) was a child who thought differently than his peers … who as a young person, like me, accepted being alone quite a lot. I think that this sort of person often becomes either a writer or a career criminal. Throughout my childhood I believe that what I thought about was different from what other kids thought about. It was not necessarily more profound, but there was a struggle going on inside me to find some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in my head.”

On C.S. Lewis (p. xxi)

“I remember reading C.S. Lewis for the first time, Surprised by Joy, and how, looking inside himself, he found “a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, an ursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.” I felt elated and absolved.”

On consistency (p. xxii)

“‘Do it every day for a while,’ my father kept saying. ‘Do it as you would do scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a debt of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.'”

On brain cancer (p. xxiv)

“My father was diagnosed with brain cancer. He and my brothers and I were devastated, but somehow we managed, just barely, to keep our heads above water. My father told me to pay attention and to take notes. ‘You tell your version,’ he said, ‘and I am going to tell mine.’

“I began to write about what my father was going through, and then began to shape these writings into connected short stories. I wove in all the vignettes and snippets I’d been working on in the year before Dad’s diagnosis, and came up with five chapters that sort of hung together. My father, who was too sick to write his own rendition, loved them …”

On hating what you wrote (p. 8)

“But the bad news is that if you’re at all like me, you’ll probably read over what you’ve written and spend the rest of the day obsessing, and praying that you do not die before you can completely rewrite or destroy what you have written, lest the eagerly waiting world learn how bad your first drafts are.”

On writing advice for life (p. 18)

“E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

On perfectionism (p. xx)

“I think that something similar happens with our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds – the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliations suffered in both – to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out. So those wounds never have a chance to heal. Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp.”

On faking (p. 60)

“The reader will stop trusting you and will possibly even become bitter and resentful. These are the worst possible things for a reader to become.”

On rejection (p. 87)

“I licked my wounds for a couple of weeks and waited for my confidence to return. I tried not to make any big dcisions about how to salvage the book or my writing life, because the one thing I knew for sure was that if you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.”

On emotions (p. 112)

“Remember the scene in Cat Ballou where a very drunk Lee Marvin goes from unconscious to ranting to triumphant to roaring to weeping to defeat, and then finally passes out? One of the men watching him says, with real awe, ‘I never seen a man get through a day so fast.’ Don’t let this be you.”

On jealousy (p. 124)

“Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and the most degrading. And I, who have been the Leona Helmsley of jealousy, have come to believe that the only things that help ease or transform it are (a) getting older, (b) talking about it until the fever breaks, and (c) using it as material.”

On determination (p. 130)

“‘I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.’ The way I dance is by writing.”

On critics (p. 142)

“Who was it that said, ‘A critic is someone who comes onto the battlefield after the battle is over and shoots the wounded’?”

Novels and salvation (p. 167)

“I heard Marianne Williamson say once that when you ask God into your life, you think he or she is going to come into your psychic house, look around, and see that you just need a new floor or better furniture and that everything needs just a little cleaning – and so you go along for the first six months thinking how nice life is now that God is there. Then you look out the window one day and see that there’s a wrecking ball outside. It turns out that God actually thinks your whole foundation is shot and you’re gonig to have to start over from scratch. This is exactly what it can be like to give, say, a novel to someone else to read.”

On writer’s block (p. 178)

“The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.”

Books as presents and legacies (p. 185)

“Twice now I have written books that began as presents to people I loved who were going to die. I’ve told you a little about my father’s diagnosis of brain cancer, how all of a sudden I had a sad story to tell. It was a story rich with drama and humor, about a father and his three semigrown children living in a tiny town filled with aging hippies, trust-fund radicals, artists, New Agers, and ordinary people, whatever that means. Out of nowhere, the rug was suddenly pulled out from under the family, when it looked as if the father had a terminal illness and was actually going to go ahead and die.

“So I started writing about our new life. I recorded moments of my brothers trying to help our father, trying to help one another, all of us trying to keep our senses of humor, trying to find meaning in it all, and saying what was really on our minds.”

Inspiration for writing (p. 186)

“Another propellant for this first novel of mine was that I found myself desperate for books that talked about cancer in a way that would both illuminate the experience and make me laugh. But there weren’t very many. In fact, there was only on that I was aware of, Violet Weingarten’s Intimations of Mortality, a journal of her chemotherapy, from which I got this book’s epigram: ‘Is life too short to be taking sh–, or is life to short to be minding it?'”

Writing as a love letter / Writing as immortality (p. 188)

Sam was getting bigger and Pammy was getting sicker, and I was writing as fast as I could, trying to get it done in time for her to read it. And I did. I gave her a finished copy four months before she died. It was another love letter, mostly to her and Sam, and for her daughter, Rebecca. Pammy knew there was something that was going to exist on paper after she was gone, something that was going to be, in a certain way, part of her immortality.

The holy goes on (p. 192)

This is from the end of a story of Lamott taking her son Sam bowling after the death of his friend Brice:

“Bowling is life at its most immediate – you fling a ball and the pins fall down, sometimes. And I also wanted to show Sam that the holy goes on, no matter how many balls you fling at it.”

Use your best stuff now (p. 202)

“Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more. This is a radical proposition that runs so contrary to human nature, or at least to my nature, that I personally keep trying to find loopholes in it. But it is only when I go ahead and decide to shoot my literary, creative wad on a daily basis that I get any sense of full presence, of being Zorba the Greek at the keyboard. Otherwise, I am a wired little rodent squirreling things away, hording and worrying about supply.”

The value of writers (p. 237)

“When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t sop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

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