The author, Anne Lamott, begins the narrative by describing her childhood and the importance of writing in her family. Her father was a writer and a lover of literature, and the family went to the library every week and often read together. When they were not spending quiet nights reading at home, the family was visited by her father’s writer friends, who often came over for drinks and dinner. Lamott remembers wishing that her father was like other fathers who worked in offices and returned home every evening. As an adult, she realizes her father would have suffered in this kind of life.
As Lamott grows up, she realizes that she too is a writer. Although she wants to fit in with her peers, the writing life feels more comfortable to her than the traditional lives of her friends. Her sense of alienation increases when her father writes a derogatory piece about their home town, which impresses some people but angers others. She then realizes that the life of a writer is often a lonely one.
In her teens, Lamott desperately tries to write something of importance. She wonders if her father was as odd and lonely as she was. Her first few attempts earn praise but are not particularly good. She feels compelled to keep writing. She writes for the high school paper and for journals, and over time she becomes adept at storytelling. When she gets to college, she is enamored of literature and philosophy and begins a postmodern novel. After college she flounders a bit, but her father encourages her to write every day. Her father’s agent is also encouraging—though she doesn’t offer to represent Lamott.
When Lamott’s father is diagnosed with brain cancer, she begins to write about his ordeal and its impact on her family. This time, her father’s agent is encouraging, and the book is eventually published. Lamott thinks she is going to be rich and famous. The book is well received, but it soon becomes apparent that she will not immediately be able to retire on her earnings.
Lamott continues to write and to teach writing to others. She warns readers that they must write because they enjoy the writing process, not because of the remote possibility of fame and fortune. She describes writing as a kind of magic, and a kind of disease that some catch. Lamott wants to help those who truly want to write, but she notices that her students often fixate instead on being published and the business side of writing. While she is willing to share what she knows about these realms, she cautions her students about the very real difficulties of being a writer. Lamott wants people to write because they want to, and because they feel they must. She concludes by saying that Bird by Bird is a summary of everything she has learned about writing.
In her introduction, Lamott takes a traditional approach, providing the reader with a brief outline of her life and involvement with writing. Stories about her own life are an integral part of Lamott’s approach to teaching writing. Throughout the novel, Lamott tells personal stories in order to illustrate her points. She often mentions her friends, writers and nonwriters alike. This approach makes Bird by Bird more than a writing manual. The book can also be read as both a guide to the writing life, as well as life in general. For Lamott, writing and living are often two sides of the same coin, and she approaches both from a spiritual perspective.
Lamott’s descriptions of her childhood are not comprehensive. For the most part, she discusses memories that pertain to writing. One of the few exceptions is her description of interacting with her peers. Lamott says that she was a “loser” who was accepted because of her unique sense of humor and ability to tell stories. Although she often felt that her life, personality, and family made her odd, she eventually realizes that her writing will allow her to connect with others. In college, writing helped Lamott find community. She found a group of like-minded people and began to write in earnest. Through her writing, she found people with similar goals and personalities. Being an oddball wasn’t about being lonely anymore; it was about being around other oddballs.
Lamott’s relationship with her father made her feel that all writers are strange and extraordinary creatures. She describes her father’s odd hours, unusual interests, and somewhat disreputable writer friends and suggests that most writers find life difficult and will often stumble. And some writers, like Lamott’s father, are simply not cut out for anything but writing.
Lamott’s father greatly influenced her interest in writing, and she derives many of her opinions about writing from him. She internalizes his advice about how to tackle overwhelming tasks, and her first successful novel is inspired by his struggle with brain cancer.