The writer, Anne Lamott, is a woman of many contradictions. She is a devout Christian with very liberal politics and unusual friendships. She has a crude, cynical sense of humor, yet she is a warm and tender mother to Sam. She is an ex-drug addict and alcoholic who has a black sense of humor about death. Lamott rarely takes one side without exploring the attractions of the other. This is particularly evident in her interactions with a ruthless student who lashes out at another student in class. Though Lamott feels the criticism was too harsh, she also recognizes that the student was brave in her honesty. The ability to see all sides of the issue makes Lamott approachable and likeable.
Lamott has made a career of delving deep into her inner feelings and personal tragedies and transforming her response to them into books and essays. Bird by Bird typifies her approach. Throughout the book, Lamott talks about faith, creativity, and community as ways to deal with the dark side of life. Far from being a stereotypically isolated writer, Lamott has many unusual, often eccentric friends. Most of these friends are fellow writers or fellow churchgoers. Though she refers to her many close friendships, she never mentions whether she was married, or if she has any kind of relationship with Sam’s father. Lamott believes herself to be a strange creature, and it is through her writing that she establishes identity and community. When her writing fails her, she turns to faith; when her faith is shaken, she turns back to her writing.
The child of a successful writer, Lamott was encouraged to be creative at a very early age. She dislikes authority and feels confined by ordinary life. Though she finds her niche in college with socialists and hippies, she drops out to pursue a more informal kind of education. She notes that she, like her father, is essentially “unemployable.” Even the publishing world, with its temptations and obligations, proves too restrictive for Lamott. She values the creative art of writing over the business of publishing. The only authority she seems comfortable with is the church. Lamott values individuality and freedom and finds these traits attractive in others.
Lamott’s father is a central inspiration in Lamott’s novel Hard Laughter. In Bird by Bird, Lamott depicts him as a central figure in her life, although she focuses more on the effect of his writing rather than on her father himself. In fact, she does not reveal his name, or the kind of books he wrote. She does portray him as a free thinker with a bohemian circle of friends. Lamott remembers his friends staying for dinner and drinking too much when she was a child. She also emphasizes her father’s discipline. He woke up at the same time each day—a practice that Lamott herself advocates—and began writing promptly after breakfast. His writing was often controversial; for example, he wrote a disparaging essay about Lamott’s hometown. Lamott is alternately thrilled and embarrassed by her father’s career as a writer, and her father is a steadfast supporter of hers. He encourages her to write a novel about his illness in the same way he encouraged her to go to the library every week to read.
At the time of Bird by Bird’s publication, Lamott’s son Sam is between three and four years old. He is a clever, precocious child who interacts well with others. Though Lamott confesses that parenthood can sometimes drive her crazy, it is clear that she adores Sam. Many of her writing methods are directly inspired by her desire to leave him an inheritance of memories and experiences. Sam’s creative instincts are encouraged by Lamott, who finds wisdom in his comments, such as, “It smells like the moon.” Sam’s personality is most evident in his interaction with Brice, the severely damaged baby of Lamott’s friends. Sam shows great tenderness toward the baby. After Brice dies, Sam is calm about seeing his corpse. As Lamott portrays him, Sam has wisdom beyond his years.
Lamott mentions many writer friends and fellow churchgoers, but she refers to Pam more than anyone else. Pam, who is dying of breast cancer, is physically weak and sometimes travels by wheelchair. She is an inspiration to Lamott. Pam has come to terms with her imminent death, and Lamott believes that Pam is wiser than most people because she has been forced to face her mortality. As Pam grows sicker, Lamott writes more and more, in order to give Pam a feeling of immortality after death.