Book Notes: Bird By Bird

Book Author: Anne Lamott

My thoughts and what I learned:

This book is the ultimate truth about writing and writers’ lives sprinkled with life lessons.

This book has been on my reading list for a long time. I even got it from the library once along with a bunch of other books but had to return it without reading as there was a hold on the book.

It made me realize that writing is hard. It is hard work. It is isolated work. It is persistence and showing up day in and day out, battling your demons and self doubts every second of the way, fighting with your insecurities and boredom and shitty drafts.

I always thought writers are born with it. That they sit at their desk and the words come pouring out their fingers. And in one go they have it all out in the right order and with the right intensity. That when they sit down to write they know except what they are doing. Boy was I wrong!

I now realize how hard it is to write a book and the writer’s life dealing with rejections from the editor after you have spent quite a bit of time writing and the number of revisions you have to go through. Getting rejected and feeling like shit and then wallowing in self-pity and anger for a while and then getting up and doing it all over again.  Only this time treating the plot differently and meticulously.  And finally getting it all right and getting it published to finally become a best-seller.

That writing is not going to belt you financial security and your articles might never be published. Writing might not open doors for you. But write anyway.  Because it makes you come alive and makes you feel better.

It was quite eye-opening to read about how the author dealt with rejections by giving space to the book with a little sunshine, and a little fresh air. How she rented a home in Petaluma to get over the grief and fear that overlapped her after the rejection from the editor. How she treated her plot by analyzing the manuscript, laying it all on the floor, and examining each section, reordering the sections and scenes. Scribbling in what she thought was missing and finally restacking all the pages in the new order and working on the next draft.

This book made me wonder if I should have been a writer.  Because I did spend a lot of my childhood alone as an only child. According to the author young people who grew up like me often become writers or criminals. And although I love crime thrillers, I definitely don’t intend to be a criminal.

There were so many instances where I could relate to the author. Like her, I always thought there was something noble and mysterious about writing. That there was something magical about people who can articulate their thoughts well and can get into others’ minds.

There were a few sections that I skipped (plot, scenes, dialogues, character, etc) because it was about writing fiction books that I had no interest in.

I scanned the last section too as it was primarily about finding help along the way if you are writing a book. But here are a few tips I picked up.

  • Find a writing group or create one.
  • Get someone to read the first draft.

A few quotable quotes from the book that caught my attention:

  • Do it every day for a while. And make a commitment to finishing things.
  • Good writing Is about telling the truth.
  • Becoming a better writer will make you become a better reader.
  • If you sit long enough to write, something will happen.

On getting started with writing:

  • Start with your childhood and write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.
  • Start with your kindergarten. Write every detail. What did you wear? Who were you jealous about. Your teachers. Classmates. Vacations. Families.  Big events. Holidays. How you dressed. How everyone else in the family dressed.  Write about the food your family ate. Write about the grownups. Your parents. Siblings. Neighbors.  Relatives.
  • Write short assignments. What you can see through a one-inch picture frame.
  • Everyone starts with a shitty first draft and that is how they get to the good second draft and terrific third draft.  Start by getting anything on paper.  In the next draft, you try to fix it up and say what you are wanting to say accurately.
  • Writing the first draft is like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.  You couldn’t have had any way of knowing what this piece of work would look like when you first started.
  • Write about your moral point of view. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you. Write about the things that are most important to you. A moral position begins inside the heart and grows from there.

What writing really is:

  • Writing is learning to pay attention to and communicate what’s going on. Writing is seeing people suffer and finding meaning in it. Your job as a writer is to present clearly your viewpoint. Your job is to see people as they are. And for this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate sense. You have to look at everything with respect and oneness.  You have to look at everything with awe and reverence
  • If you are a writer or want to be a writer this is how you spend your days-listening, observing, storing things away, and making your isolation pay off.
  • Dying people can teach us a lot. Often the attributes that define them drop away like the skills, the shape, the hair.  And it turns out that the packaging is really not what that person has been all along.  Without the package, another sort of beauty shines thru. This is how real life works and this is what good writing allows us to notice. You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness and surprising connections will appear.
  • To be a good writer you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. A writer always tries to be a part of the solution to understand a little about life and to pass this on. They give great insights into what’s true and what helps.

When you don’t know what to do, in your writing:

  • When you don’t know what to do with your writing, get quiet and listen to that still small voice inside of you.  It will tell you what to do.
  • You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself by being militantly on your side. You get your intuition back when you make space for it. When you stop the chattering of the rational mind.
  • Intuition will be blown by too much compulsion and manic attention but will burn quietly when watched with gentle concentration. If you stop trying to control your mind you’ll have intuitive hunches.
  • Take the attitude that what you are thinking and feeling is valuable stuff.

On writing in December:

December is traditionally a bad month for writing. It’s a month of Monday’s. Monday’s are not good writing days. One has had all the freedom on the weekend. So never start a large writing project on any Monday in December.  Why set yourself up for failure?

About perfectionism:

Messes are an artist’s true friend. We need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here and what we’re supposed to be writing.

On radio station KFKD (imposter syndrome):

The one that keeps rapping about self-loathing and all the mistakes you have done or will ever do. This station is on every single morning. So sit for a moment and say a small prayer – “Pls help me get out of the way”. Sometimes a ritual quiets the radio – like praying at an altar, sage smudging, candle lighting. Rituals are a good sign to your unconscious that it is time to kick in.

On jealousy:

Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not sweat on the small things. Jealousy is a secondary emotion. It is born out of feeling excluded and deprived.  It helps to heal your past.

On having too many writers:

Life is like a recycling center. Where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, your own sense of humor, or insider pathos or meaning.

From the last class:

  • Write about your childhood.
  • Write in a directly emotional way instead of being subtle.
  • Tell the truth as you understand it.


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