Bird by Bird
Part One: Writing
Summary: “Getting Started” and “Short Assignments”
Lamott emphasizes telling the truth and says it is a primary component of good writing. She advises her students to start by writing about their childhoods. If the enormity of this topic seems overwhelming, she suggests starting with memories of their first few years of school. However, the important thing is to just begin writing something and to capture the details of some event. If this doesn’t work, Lamott advises writing about a particular holiday. Ultimately, writing is simply a matter of sitting down and plunging in. Writers may suffer from insecurities, worries, and distractions, but it is crucial to continue to write and persist with faith, despite the obstacles the mind might throw at you.
Lamott emphasizes that something salvageable can often be found, even in a piece of bad writing. Writers must be open to the twists and turns their stories take, even if those twists and turns result in an entirely different story than the one they originally planned to write. Her students respond to Lamott’s writing advice by asking how they can find an agent. But Lamott continues to emphasize the actual process of writing rather than publication.
Lamott’s students are fixated on being published. She repeatedly cautions both her students and her readers that publication is not some magical solution that will rescue writers from the hardships of reality.
In “Short Assignments,” Lamott states that novice writers should always start with short assignments so they are not overwhelmed. Lamott then describes how she sits down to write each day and how she is utterly unfocused until her glance falls on the square, one-inch picture frame on her desk. The little picture frame reminds her to focus on just a small piece of the whole story. When a writer starts with a small focus and then widens it gradually, the story will come together more easily.
Lamott describes the advice her father gave to her brother when he was overwhelmed by a school project on birds. Her father told her brother to take it “bird by bird.” Along those same lines, Lamott advises her students to focus on small steps, rather than on the entire project.
In Part One, Lamott discusses her students’ response to her methods of teaching and suggests that her students are too concerned with getting published. Lamott is far more interested in teaching them how to write. Additionally, as she points out, there is no secret to publishing success.
However, even when her students misinterpret her or do not listen, Lamott is good-humored. She remains devoted to writing and teaching, and she understands her students’ interest in the publishing world, even as she tries to keep it in check. While many writing guides focus on the finer points of the publishing business, Lamott goes out of her way to make it clear that this is not her emphasis.
Lamott often talks about “small things,” both in life and in writing. She explains how writers can discover large stories by beginning with the smaller details. In some ways, this methodology is similar in spirit to a religious ceremony, where the focus is on ritual that inspires faith in a greater force. Lamott’s use of the small picture frame to remind her to work on details is a meditative technique, and it focuses her on a manageable task.
When Lamott describes the act of writing, she refers to “mining a vein of memories.” In encouraging students to write about their families and their memories, Lamott emphasizes a memoir-inspired style of writing much like her own. This reinforces the idea that writing is a private process that is connected to family and personal experiences. Lamott suggests that writing about memories will often mean reliving or channeling painful and uncomfortable details, but it will also occasionally provide catharsis, and it will always give you good source material for writing.
Summary: “Shitty First Drafts,” “Perfectionism,” “School Lunches,” and “Polaroids”
Lamott disputes the misconception that successful writers simply sit down and churn out fully formed passages and chapters. Instead, she suggests that nearly every writer, no matter how successful, writes what she calls a “shitty first draft.” In fact, Lamott suggests that a shitty first draft is an almost obligatory starting point. She recalls writing restaurant reviews for California magazine. Her reviews would take shape only after she gave herself permission to write a terrible first draft.
Lamott addresses the “other voices” that exist in the head of every writer: the critic, the perfectionist, and so on. Every writer can be plagued by these voices, and fighting the voices is part of the process of writing. She recommends a mental exercise in which the writer listens to the voice, envisions the speaker turning into a mouse, and then imagines dropping the mouse into a bottle. One must keep writing even though the inner voices are saying that the work is no good.
Lamott discusses perfectionism and the terrible pressure it can create. She believes that it can almost certainly ruin your work, and therefore it is essential to push past it. Lamott states that a belief in God is helpful with this problem. If writers don’t believe in God, it is then helpful to be compassionate toward their own attempts at writing. She describes how a good story is like a thin thread of smoke that the writer must follow. The quest for perfectionism will prevent the writer from following this thread and finding the story.
When a student complains of writer’s block, Lamott suggests writing about school lunches. She believes that the dynamics of writing and the dynamics of school lunches are very similar. As in writing, the school lunch has many facets: the fact that fathers inevitably screw up at making a school lunch; the idea that the sandwich bread must be white; and even the desire to have limp lettuce so other kids won’t tease. The entire concept of the subject is so broad that it is best to focus on one small part of the lunch itself. This mental exercise helps students to realize that only by zoning in on the specifics can one really begin the process of writing.
When asked for her best piece of advice on writing, Lamott recalls the response of writer Natalie Goldberg. Goldberg had held up a yellow pad and mimed writing on it, implying that the best way to improve one’s writing is to just sit down and do it. Lamott says that this Zen-like advice is the best she has heard.
At the end of the lunch exercise, Lamott finds herself recalling a loner who always sat by a fence along the edge of the schoolyard. It takes a while for Lamott to remember this interesting character, but through the process she arrives at what she feels is the beginning of an interesting story. This confirms the point of the exercise: to discover a story you didn’t know existed when you started writing. Lamott compares writing to developing a Polaroid; the story, like the photo, develops over time. She recalls attending the Special Olympics to write an article. At first she found the search for a story slow and tedious, but eventually a story developed and took on a life of its own. Her patience allowed the story to develop over the course of a day.
Lamott’s most important piece of advice to aspiring writers is to sit down and write without worrying too much about the result. This is the theme of the chapter called “Shitty First Drafts.” By giving writers a sense of their creative freedom, she reminds them they can be as out of control and goofy as they want. It is the act of writing, rather than the final result, that is crucial. Unlike the urge to write (which she describes as magical), the practice of writing is a craft.
In this chapter, Lamott makes direct references to God and Christianity. Lamott, a devout Christian, often emphasizes the mystical aspects of writing, and she draws on the teachings of various religions to convey the difficulties of a writer’s job. As in most religions, Lamott’s writing involves blind faith, perseverance, discipline, and a connection to something greater than herself. In order to deal with the trials and tribulations of writing, Lamott emphasizes discipline and perseverance in the face of self-doubt. She advises struggling writers to write about childhood memories or any random subject in order to just keep the pen moving as much as possible. In short, she asks the writer to have faith, even when everything seems bleak.
Lamott’s discussion of “inner voices” is her attempt to quell the fears and uncertainty that plague most writers. In order to deal with guilt, paranoia, and criticism, she thinks of them as beings with individual personalities and often does visualization exercises in order to banish them. In other words, she vanquishes the voices that hinder creativity through more creativity.
Summary: “Character,” “Plot,” and “Dialogue”
Lamott refers to her friend’s idea that each person is given one emotional square acre of his own. To know a character, writers must know everything in that character’s emotional acre, from what the character carries in her purse to what she likes to eat. Characters must develop organically, rather than forcing predetermined behavior and actions on them. Lamott emphasizes that characters, like stories, develop over time. Each character grows out of a different part of the writer’s personality, which means the writer will both love and hate his or her characters.
Lamott says nothing is more important than a likable narrator, and writers themselves must like the narrators they create. While the narrator must have faults, she must never be boring or annoying to the reader. The narrator must be interesting and reliable, unless unreliability is one of his intended flaws. The writer’s job is ultimately to tell the truth about the characters.
Lamott believes that plot grows out of character; consequently, a story must never be forced on its characters. As an example, she uses Faulkner’s plots, which emerge from his flawed, beautiful, crazy characters. She emphasizes that the plot must be like a dream that is “vivid and continuous.” The reader must want to keep reading, just as you might want to keep dreaming to find out what happens next. She also thinks it is helpful for someone else to read your work and serve as “the executioner” to passages that don’t work.
Lamott says that if she gives her class a topic to write on—for example, two people going through a divorce—every student will come up with a different story. The power of the plot comes from traditional elements of drama: the setup, buildup, and payoff. Lamott explains that a good climax will unfold slowly from all the previous actions and change at least one character profoundly.
Dialogue is particularly important, because good dialogue can give a story life and bad dialogue can ruin it. Lamott recommends reading dialogue out loud to decide whether it sounds realistic. She also says that readers must be able to identify each character by what he says. She suggests putting characters who hate each other together and seeing what develops. Dialogue shows an emotional understanding of characters, and writers should have some compassion for all of their characters. Finally, she recommends visualizing a “helper” in your head who hands you information about your characters from your subconscious.
In describing the creation of character, Lamott draws from her own experiences. She thinks characters are often just waiting to be found. Once again, she stresses the importance of perseverance and faith. Writers must go through a long, slow process of discovery—not unlike self-discovery—in order to create compelling characters. Lamott makes the process of characterization very personal. In describing what she considers an “interesting” character, she draws from herself, her friends, and her relatives, blurring the lines between real and fictional characters. Lamott says characters must be likable. For her, likable characters have personalities similar to those of her friends. For other writers, likable characters may have another kind of personality. What’s important is the writer’s attitude toward her characters, not the characters’ specific traits.
Lamott’s descriptions of plot development focus not on the mechanics of creating a story but instead on the idea that stories develop from the characters. Plot will simply occur if writers create interesting characters. She refers to several writers, including John Gardner and E. M. Forester, to support her idea that plot is derived from the behavior of a given character, especially when that character is faced with unusual or difficult situations. By avoiding a discussion of the mechanics of plot, Lamott stays true to her theory that learning to write is like learning to live. She is less interested in the mechanics of either, preferring to describe the story that is written properly and the life that is lived properly.
In her discussions of the technical aspects of writing, such as plot, character, and dialogue, Lamott generally advocates faith in the writing process as a cure-all. Writers must believe that they will discover characters and come up with natural, unforced dialogue. This organic approach to writing is less specific than the advice often found in how-to books, which advocate more organized, methodical approaches to writing. In many instances, Lamott sidesteps strict instructions in favor of a more general philosophy. She speaks of writing as a valuable process that results in a living, breathing organism with various wants and needs.
Summary: “Set Design,” “False Starts,” “Plot Treatment,” and “How Do You Know When You’re Done?”
According to Lamott, one of the best ways to design a story setting is to do research with experts in a particular field. If a story is set in a wealthy neighborhood, the writer should interview a wealthy person and learn about her life. Lamott says that when she wrote a novel that involved gardening, a topic about which she knew little, she contacted a greenhouse and spoke to a gardener who helped her design a fictional garden. Based on her research, she was able to create a character so believable that Lamott’s readers assumed Lamott was an avid gardener. Lamott says that in addition to research, she often visualizes her settings before she starts writing.
In the next chapter, Lamott describes an artist who envisioned his painting in a particular way. Whenever he saw the final product, he would redo it. With each false start, the artist knew more about what he didn’t want and therefore came closer to what he did want. Lamott says the false starts of writing are often like this painter’s work.
Lamott describes her monthly visits to a nursing home, where she talks with the elderly, and often dying, patients. She feels depressed and demoralized by the visits, but she keeps going. She realizes that these people might be stripped of all their vitality and health, but they retain their humanity. Writers must scrutinize their characters and discern what is beneath the surface, just as Lamott scrutinizes the nursing home residents. Often, what the writer starts with is not the true soul or center of the character. The underlying essence of the story will come to the surface in surprising ways, after all the externals have been stripped away.
A plot treatment can carry the essence of the story, which may end up being quite different from the story the writer first envisioned. When she was writing her second novel, Lamott thought she had a clear understanding of the climax. She had been working for two years and had spent most of her advance when her editor wrote her a polite letter advising her to abandon the novel entirely. Instead, Lamott devoted more time to the project and entirely reconstructed the novel. When she felt she had succeeded, she triumphantly sent the revised novel to her editor and wrote a note saying she was coming for a consultation.
Her editor felt that the novel still didn’t work. Lamott was crushed and insisted on visiting the editor at his home to make a final plea. At his house, she passionately described the point of the novel, the characters’ relationships, and the hidden themes of her story. The editor told her to go off and write a plot treatment (i.e., a description of the plot) of the story in her head, rather than the story she had handed to her editor.
Lamott’s students often want to see the plot treatment described in this story. When they do, they pore over it in the hopes of uncovering a magic formula, which doesn’t happen. Still, plot treatments can be a guide to what is truly important in a novel. When students ask how they will know when their novel is done, Lamott says finishing a novel is like putting an octopus under a bed. Tentacles keep reaching out, but eventually the writer just doesn’t have any more energy to wrestle with it.
In this section, Lamott addresses the idea that writing can lead to a heightened sense of community. In the chapter called “Set Design,” for example, she advises writers who need to do research to reach out to people rather than the Internet or the library. Her picture of writers chatting to experts on the phone directly contradicts the stereotype of the lonely, isolated writer scribbling at his desk.
Lamott discusses her phone conversations with a gardener, her visits to nursing homes, and her discussions with her New York editor. Each interaction provides her with material for her writing and teaches her lessons about life—which also turn out to be lessons about writing. Although she has previously described the writer as a strange and unusual creature, Lamott suggests in this section that writers can also find a place in the community and connection with other people.
Lamott’s interaction with her New York editor saves the novel she is working on. Her trip to his house is depicted as an act of desperation. Through a combination of liquor and frustration, she eventually lands on her editor’s doorstep. Lamott struggles to explain to him the essence of her book and succeeds, coming up with a captivating plot treatment as she speaks. But her editor tells her that the plot she described out loud is far different from what she put on the page.
In this section, Lamott continues to emphasize the mysticism of writing rather than the mechanics. She suggests that she found the heart of her novel through emotion and desperation, not through following certain steps or sticking to a rigid routine.
Lamott explains her views on death and dying by describing her visits to the nursing home. She introduced the subject of death earlier in the book when she described her father’s struggle with brain cancer, but here she explores the subject in greater detail. Her descriptions of the nursing home are both disturbing and touching. The descriptions also emphasize her willingness to turn the tragedy of dying into lessons on writing. Lamott describes her friend Pam, who is ill with cancer, as wise, perhaps because she understands life better in the face of death.
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