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Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott

Part Two: The Writing Frame of Mind

Part One: Writing

Part Two: The Writing Frame of Mind, page 2

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Summary: “Looking Around,” “The Moral Point of View,” “Broccoli,” “Radio Station KFKD,” and “Jealousy”

Lamott says that writers often stand apart from the crowd, observing rather than participating. She emphasizes that writers must work to really see their surroundings. Writers must look at the world tenderly and recognize each being’s special qualities. In order to do this, writers should practice a state of compassionate detachment. They should try to see the world without being overwhelmed by it. Lamott likens this detachment to the sense of reverence children feel toward the world.

Writers must care passionately about the story they are working on. If they don’t, failure is certain. For Lamott, all writing has a moral point of view, even when it does not preach a message or a particular religious viewpoint. The characters must be human, and the story must have something to say about humanity and society at large. A few basic themes and elements of life have persisted through the ages, and if your writing does not reflect some of these themes and elements, you will find it difficult to continue telling your story. To be a good writer, you must have something new to convey to your audience.

Intuition must also play a prominent part in a writer’s search for the truth. To explain this concept, Lamott refers to an old Mel Brooks routine in which a psychiatrist tells a patient, “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” If a writer really listens to the work he is producing, Lamott says, intuition will guide him to the next step. Adults often teach children to ignore their intuition at an early age, but it is imperative to reconnect with intuition in order to succeed as a writer. One way to listen to your intuition is to actively quiet the inner voices of doubt and judgment that urge you to be more conventional. Some writers find it useful to imagine their intuition as a little animal or a friendly person who gives tips on where the story should be heading.

Lamott jokes that often when a writer sits down to write, she will hear the radio station KFKD blaring in her head. KFKD plays the voices and the sounds that make writers feel like self-pitying geniuses or incompetent hacks. The best way to deal with this internal noise is to become aware of it. True concentration on silencing the voices is the only solution.

The most powerful voice on KFKD is jealousy, which plagues every writer at some point. Jealousy bares its teeth when you are underpaid or your talent is undervalued. It only gets worse when another writer with no talent is given a lucrative book deal and lots of praise and media attention. Jealousy will make you feel awful and resentful. Lamott recalls one writer friend who often complained about her fame and money at a time when Lamott herself was very poor. Lamott forces herself to listen and be supportive even though jealousy was consuming her. When she called her friends to ask for advice, some offered spiritual guidance and others offered practical tips. What finally helped Lamott was writing about her envy and developing a sense of humor about it. Eventually, the jealousy faded, although Lamott did distance herself from her preening writer friend.


Though Lamott takes pains to separate issues of morality from religious beliefs, her religion is clearly a pervasive influence. Her belief that writing must be moral, for example, is not one all authors share. Lamott uses the word moral to describe something the author cares about passionately. She takes pains to connect writing to large themes and expects her students to do the same.

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