The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get where you want to be that way, I tell them.
This is a central theme of Bird by Bird. Lamott is eager to teach her students about the craft and joys of writing, but her students continually interrupt her with questions about publishing. Many are so fixated on the goal of publishing that they don’t have patience for the basics of writing. Lamott laments the fact that her students place undue importance on being published. She notes that publishing has its perks, but it rarely makes people happy. She repeatedly brings the focus back to writing.
Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
This quotation addresses the title of the book, and also provides insight into Lamott’s philosophy on writing and life. As a child, Lamott’s brother was once overwhelmed by a huge school project on birds. His father’s simple yet profound advice was to take it “bird by bird,” or one small step at a time. Lamott firmly believes that writers should start small, by thinking about discrete events in great detail, like one event from childhood. In this way, they will not be intimidated by the vastness of the task ahead of them. This quotation also emphasizes the importance of patience and faith. If writers write with discipline, they will be able to accomplish great things.
The fact that Lamott chooses the phrase “Bird by bird” as the title of her book is a tribute to her father, and his influence on her. Not only was he a writer who encouraged his daughter’s own writing, but also he was the inspiration for her first book after falling ill with brain cancer. Lamott is a largely autobiographical writer, and Bird by Bird is partly a memoir of her experience and her life. By choosing her father’s advice to serve as her title, she continues to use her memories as a source of inspiration.
To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal, but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and pass it on.
Here Lamott emphasizes that good writing is often moral, and that good writers must be passionate about their subject matter. Lamott takes pains to use the word moral without giving it a moralizing or religious connotation, although her religious beliefs have certainly permeated her own worldview. Both religion and writing attempt to make sense of an often complicated world. Lamott constantly reiterates that though writers might feel outside of society, their job is to call attention to things others might miss. In this way, writers serve as guides to the mysteries of human nature.
Lamott’s view of morality is inextricably linked with giving and community. For her, the act of writing can be moral only when it thinks of the community at large or attempts to give back. Giving back is a big theme in Bird by Bird. Lamott often describes her writing as a way to give back to loved ones who are suffering. She also advocates writing as a tribute to those writers who were inspirations. Lamott has little use for writing that doesn’t deal with larger themes of existence. This, for Lamott, is the loftiest aspiration of any writer.
You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.
Here Lamott addresses a student in a writing group who callously tells another student how bad his writing is. She refrains from reprimanding the critic in public and actually praises her honesty. But she also points out that the truth does not always need to be so harsh. One can guide another gently to the truth without demoralizing or condemning him. Lamott advocates a compassionate approach to writing—and life—whenever possible. Even when she is in conflict with her students, she believes that one should be caring and giving. Honesty has its place in the writing process, as Lamott makes clear in the first chapter, but brutal honesty is largely unnecessary.
“The world can’t give us that serenity,” he said. “The world can’t give us peace. We can only find it in our heart.”
“I hate that,” I said.
“I know. But the good news is that by the same token, the world can’t take it away.”
In this quotation, Lamott recalls a meaningful conversation with her pastor. She is referring to how being published and praised for her last book left her craving validation from the world in an unhealthy way. This is the most obvious instance of Lamott finding support from her church. For her, church provides a sanctuary away from the perils of everyday life, including publishing. She sees writing as a spiritual activity that can often bring one closer to God, and she notes that publishing actually moves her away from peace of mind.
Her pastor reaffirms the point that Lamott must find serenity within herself. Many of the writer’s strengths and resources will come from an internal place rather than an external one. She conquers jealousy, for example, by turning to her creativity. She even conquers some of the critical voices in her head by simply focusing on silencing them. And, in the section on writer’s block, she advocates continuing to write as the mind and unconscious wait to become filled with material again. Though she finds support from her church, Lamott advocates a kind of creative self-sufficiency, where good writing can come from patience with oneself and faith in one’s mind. The writer must frequently look within and trust what he finds there. As with peace of mind, good writing must come from experience and self-discovery