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Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott

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Plot Overview

Anne Lamott was born in 1954 in San Francisco and raised in the wealthy suburbs of Marin County. Her father was a noted novelist, and Lamott and her brothers grew up in relative comfort. In 1972, she matriculated at Goucher College, but she dropped out in 1973 to pursue a career as a writer. She endured a series of failed relationships, as well as troubles with drugs, alcohol, and bulimia. She struggled with these issues for many years before finally conquering them.

Lamott says she has written since early childhood, but her career as a professional writer began only when her father was stricken with brain cancer in 1975. During this time, Lamott began work on a novel about a woman dealing with her father’s brain cancer and her dysfunctional family. The somewhat autobiographical book was entitled Hard Laughter. It was published in 1980 to largely positive reviews.

After the release of Hard Laughter, Lamott’s career as a writer blossomed. She now writes both fiction and nonfiction. In addition to Bird by Bird (1994), her best-known work, she is the author of Rosie (1983), Joe Jones (1985), All the New People (1989), Operating Instructions: The Journal of My Son’s First Year (1993), Crooked Little Heart (1997), Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999) and Blue Shoe (2002). She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1985. She has also done considerable magazine work, including stints as book reviewer for Mademoiselle and restaurant critic for California Magazine. Currently she is a commentator for NPR and writes columns for Salon.com. She has also taught creative writing at writing conferences and several universities, including the University of California at Davis.

Lamott writes almost exclusively about personal issues, such as her battle with drugs and substance abuse. She has been sober since the late 1980s. The effects of her alcoholism on family and friends is a recurring theme in many of her novels, including Rosie and Crooked Little Heart.

In her writing, Lamott makes frequent references to her devout Christianity. She can’t remember exactly when she became a practicing Christian, but she estimates that it was in the late 1970s, when she was struggling to beat her addiction to drugs and alcohol. She reveals her religious beliefs in Operating Instructions, and Blue Shoe features her first Christian protagonist. These days, Lamott rarely gives a speech without mentioning God or Jesus. However, Lamott does not fit the stereotypical profile of a white religious fundamentalist. She attends a largely African-American church, and she is politically liberal. She is pro-choice and advocates gay rights. Her beliefs have endeared her to many nontraditional Christians while enraging more conservative ones. (She received hate mail for her scathing critique of Pat Robertson’s fiction.) Her religious beliefs show up in most of her work, but they are tempered with an easygoing and liberal spirit.

Lamott’s writing runs the gamut from freethinking spirituality to darker commentaries on death and illness. Her novels are filled with messy, unfinished people who act impulsively and create chaos in their lives. A similar recklessness also pervades her nonfiction. Bird by Bird, a commentary on Lamott’s beliefs about writing as well as a biographical account of her own career, has been Lamott’s most popular work. While some critics find her use of profanity off-putting, and others accuse her of being self-absorbed and emotionally unpredictable, readers respond to her humorous yet emotional account of the trials and tribulations of a writer’s life.

In Bird by Bird, Lamott draws on her own personal relationships and often quotes friends and fellow writers at length. Lamott’s books suggest that writing is a cathartic way of dealing with life’s troubles and problems. Fans of Bird by Bird are both aspiring writers and nonwriters moved by Lamott’s uniquely conversational style and unsparing wit.

Currently, Lamott and her thirteen-year-old son Sam (who is frequently mentioned in Bird by Bird) live in Fairfax, California. Lamott continues to teach and to write magazine articles and books.

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