Bird by Bird
Part Three: Help Along the Way
Summary: “Index Cards,” “Calling Around,” and “Writing Groups”
In an effort to be observant and open to ideas, Lamott carries index cards. She carries them everywhere, not only to record events but also to remind herself to pay attention to the world around her, both as a writer and as a human being. She relates a story with her dying friend, Pam. Pam was watching her young daughter play, and she was struggling to find the silver lining in her situation. Lamott offered, “The silver lining is that you’re not going to have to see any more naked pictures of Demi Moore.” She quickly jotted down the words “Pammy, Demi Moore” on an index card. Lamott stated that many writers do fine without lists and index cards, but that she would feel lost without them. Many small but important moments would have been lost or forgotten if not for her index cards.
Lamott says that once you truly start looking at the world through the lens of a writer, you can begin to see nearly everything as “material.” The index cards record these thoughts and moments. Lamott admits that she is disorganized, and that she has far more index cards than she knows what to do with. But every time she feels lost in a project or stumped, she reviews her index cards and they invariably jog her memory. She recalls how a woman’s perfume reminded her of the lemonade her aunt made while she was going through a divorce. She used a lemonade maker and forgot to add the sugar, but everyone was so desperate for a happy moment that they happily drank it and pretended that it was wonderful. She also remembers how, one night, Sam inhaled deeply and said the night “smelled like the moon.” This memory was also transcribed on an index card. Lamott admits that she throws out many of her index cards, but that the ones that remain will be a kind of piecemeal inheritance for Sam. In a way, her index cards hold her memories, as well as her writing inspirations.
The act of researching by calling experts makes the process of writing more communal. Whenever there is something the writer doesn’t know, it’s important to remember that there are many people who do possess the information that the writer needs. Calling around can be the writer’s break. Here Lamott aligns writing and raising children: every day a child needs both discipline and a break. Through the act of research, the writer can connect with interesting people, and these connections might inspire new writing. Lamott relates a time when she was writing about a man opening a bottle of champagne, but she didn’t know what the wire thing around the bottleneck was called. She called a local winery, and as she was being connected to someone who would know about it, she began to envision the beauty of the vineyards, and their glowing, translucent grapes. Eventually, she reached someone who was able to tell her that the “wire thing” was called the wire hood. From this, Lamott was able to find some useful information, as well as inspiration to write a beautiful scene; additionally, she received heartfelt thanks from her readers for finally answering the question of what that “wire thing” is called.
Lamott states that while the writer might initially be enamored of the writing process, eventually most writers will want feedback. For this, there are writer conferences and writer groups. Many writers join writing groups or classes to get feedback, to learn from and offer support to others, to share disappointments and stories about the writing life, or simply to connect with other writers. Some beginning writers secretly hope that Lamott will instantly fall in love with their work and recommend it for publication. This very rarely, if ever, happens. In general, Lamott supports and encourages writers, as well as provides advice. Writers can help one another and provide a supportive community of constructive criticism and emotional guidance. However, it can be hard to have others read and critique your work—especially since some people will feel compelled to be destructive.
Lamott recalls one such incident during a writing class. A beginning writer had submitted an experimental piece that was quite weak. Some of the writers tried to point out what was working and what wasn’t, and how the author could improve. Suddenly, one student shouted that she felt the story was awful and no one was being honest with the author. Though this was largely true, it was very hurtful and the class anxiously awaited Lamott’s reaction. She told the author of the story that it was better to try something difficult, even if it didn’t quite work, and that he should work on it a little more and then move on. She also commended the critic for speaking up, but later told her, “You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it, too.” When writers ask about how to create a writer’s group, Lamott states that there are a variety of ways, but reminds questioners that writer’s groups are not just about getting published, but also about supporting each other. She recalls one instance when a depressed writer was reinvigorated by the trials of another writer from her group and began working on her book again.
The chapter on index cards is one of the few chapters in which Lamott straightforwardly discusses the mechanics of writing, and yet it is also a chapter in which memories feature prominently. Lamott states that she uses index cards as a tool to record details and story ideas. However, the examples she gives prove that the index cards have a larger significance as a way of memorializing important moments in one’s life. For example, the simple note “Pammy, Demi Moore,” has less importance as a possible story line than it has as a precious memory of an afternoon with Pam. Lamott’s statement that the index cards will be Sam’s inheritance touches on the idea of using your writing as a gift to others. She revisits this theme in later chapters. Once again, writing mingles with real life, and the tools for one world prove as useful for the other.
Here, Lamott continues to discuss the importance of community. In the chapter “Calling Around,” she reiterates her belief that writing can foster community. But she is upfront about the isolation that writers often experience. This is one of the inherent contradictions in the life of a writer: to write successfully, one must have a broad knowledge of human nature, yet the actual writing process requires one to spend lots of time alone. Establishing a community of fellow writers can be helpful, but writers must be as careful in selecting this community as they are in selecting friends or lovers.
Lamott clearly favors critics who are honest yet tactful. During the infamous confrontation in one of her workshops, Lamott praises the harsh critic for her honesty but chastises her for her bluntness. This incident shows the risk that writers face when they share their work with others. This theme persists throughout Bird by Bird.
Lamott uses her experiences with writers’ conferences and writers’ groups to highlight the differences between writing and publishing. Getting published should not be the primary objective of writing. She tells her students that they will be happier and more successful if they treat publishing as a secondary goal. She cites a group of former students who formed a loyal and devoted writers’ group as an example. Though very few of the members have been published, their group provides solace, comfort, and incentive to keep writing.
Summary: “Someone to Read Your Drafts,” “Letters,” and “Writer’s Block”
Lamott recommends that every writer find a trusted friend to read her or his first drafts. Lamott herself has two friends with whom she shares her work; one is a writer and one is not. Upon completing a manuscript, Lamott rushes them a copy via Federal Express because she is so anxious about their response. In spite of her worrying, her friends usually provide positive feedback, along with constructive criticism. As she listens to their suggestions, Lamott often wants to defend her work or be angry at them. But ultimately she is grateful for these friends and truly values their feedback.
When someone doesn’t know what to write about, Lamott suggests writing about one’s own life. This exercise often unlocks valuable memories and feelings. An editor once commissioned Lamott to write an essay on the San Francisco Giants, and Lamott was initially stumped. She began by writing a letter to Sam about her memories of watching the Giants, and of individual games and particular players. Her love of baseball was a result of the basic human drive to be part of a community. Eventually, a captivating story emerged from this letter.
Lamott then addresses the horrible—yet inevitable—curse of writer’s block. She refuses to think of the problem as a block; rather, she prefers to think of it as a problem that can be conquered by changing one’s approach to writing. She counsels the writer not to force a particular story but to simply write three hundred words a day on any topic. By continuing to write, the writer will soon pass through this period of emptiness.
A central theme of Bird by Bird is the advantage of confronting the ugliness in the world and oneself, rather than avoiding it. This theme is illuminated in Lamott’s references to illness and dying, but it is also present in this section, as she discusses the love-hate relationship she has with the two friends who read her drafts. Choosing these friends, as she says, is as important as choosing a mate, because the act of sharing one’s writing is an intimate, often painful process. Lamott praises her friends but also admits to having vicious, irrational thoughts when they give her the very feedback that she has requested. She readily admits these negative feelings. Here Lamott’s open and honest narrative style reinforces the fact that she is a trustworthy narrator.
Lamott compares story writing to taking photographs or writing letters. She revisits this theme in recalling her commission to write about the San Francisco Giants. Initially, she is stumped, but once she starts thinking about childhood memories, a story develops like a Polaroid. Lamott also advises her students to write letters in order to delve into their own memories. These memories are an endless source of fodder for writing, and the act of letter-writing is also an act of communication. For Lamott, good writing is inherently an act of sharing experiences with others.
In “Writers’ Block,” Lamott once again counsels a mixture of creative thinking and faith. Her approach to writing emphasizes immersing oneself in one’s life. She interprets writer’s block as a sign that the writer needs to back away from intense, rigorous writing and start living his life. Lamott has no practical answers for writer’s block; in essence, she counsels waiting until inspiration strikes. However, she insists that the writer continue to write three hundred words a day. She advises writing about the past and childhood memories—where she often finds inspiration—but stresses that writing on any topic is better than not writing at all. This combination of creative activity and patient faith is Lamott’s solution to many of life’s obstacles.
Summary: “Writing a Present” and “Finding Your Voice”
Here Lamott describes the inspiration for Bird by Bird in greater detail. For her, writing is often the process of creating a present for someone she cares deeply about. Her first novel was intended as a present to her father, who died of brain cancer. The novel depicted a dysfunctional family dealing with the same issue; her book shows the family’s sadness, but also the uncomfortable and blackly humorous side of the issue. When Pammy is dying of cancer, Lamott finds herself typing up journal entries and compiling them into a book to honor her friend. Finally, in order to speak to single mothers, Lamott writes about her experience during the first year of Sam’s life. All three books were motivated by an effort to show the good and bad feelings that go along with loss, friendship, and parenting.
Lamott tells the story of friends who gave birth to a very sick baby named Brice. Brice only lived for a few months, and Lamott and Sam often visited him during that time. When she is given the opportunity to do an essay for a radio show on any subject, she chooses to address these visits. In the essay, she describes Sam’s calm reaction to seeing Brice, as well as the feelings of Brice’s parents during his short life. Brice’s parents were touched and grateful for the essay.
Lamott then discusses her students’ urge to emulate their favorite writers. For example, many of her students are inspired by the magic realism of Isabel Allende’s books, yet they are rarely successful at mimicking her style. Lamott counsels writers to never mimic other writers; rather, they should focus on finding their own material and voice. Ultimately, the writer must always strive for the truth and speak in his own voice.
Lamott frequently reiterates the concept that the writer must write the truth. Here she equates the truth with a unique voice that is free from mimicry. In searching for this unique voice, the writer must engage in intense self-discovery. Truth must include both the positive and negative elements of one’s life; one cannot be highlighted without the other. Therefore the mimicry of another author is impossible, as the writer will not be in an active search for the truth. While ordinary people might hide from the truth, the writer cannot afford to do so.
“Writing a Present” contains echoes of Christian morality. Writing can be seen as a form of community service, or giving to someone in need. Lamott advocates this as a way to jumpstart one’s writing, and also as the purpose of writing itself. Much of this chapter is devoted to giving something to the ill or dying. A major tenet of Christianity is to give to those less fortunate than oneself, and Lamott clearly sees writing as one way to achieve this goal. Lamott will expound the theme of selfless giving in later chapters.
When dealing with difficult subjects such as death or dying, Lamott often employs her dark sense of humor. When her father was diagnosed with cancer, she craved books that discussed the strangeness of this experience, but she found only sentimental books. Lamott will often include dark jokes or bleak poetry in her work. She uses humor to stave off the sentimentality that writing on emotional topics might otherwise perpetuate.
Summary: “Giving” and “Publication”
Lamott again addresses the notion of giving as it relates to writing and life. For Lamott, the creative act of writing is a way of giving back, both to the people who inspire her and to her audience. Her role models for learning how to give are young children, who give unconditionally and love unabashedly. She relates a story of a child, who, when asked to give a blood transfusion to his leukemia-afflicted sister, reluctantly agrees. As he is giving blood, he asks, “How soon until I start to die?” The boy was under the horrible misconception that he would have to give his own life in order to save his sister. Lamott states that she can see glimpses of this generosity and innocence in her friends. For writers, this generous nature is a gift, since it allows them to see beyond the ordinary.
In describing publication, Lamott emphasizes her overwhelming anxiety after she has submitted a manuscript to her agent. After she has agonized for what feels like an eternity, her agent calls to congratulate her on her book’s acceptance for publication. She admits that this is a happy time, and being published is exciting and rewarding. But difficulty arises when a writer believes that publication will be a thunderous, life changing experience. In actuality, Lamott compares the experience to the last days of pregnancy—it is both uncomfortable and emotional.
When the reviews of the book begin to trickle in, some sound blandly complimentary, while others are more damaging. The low point for Lamott is usually the date of publication, when she sits and waits for the phone to ring. One time, her friend Carpenter and she both had books publishing on the same day. They both sat by the phone, waiting for it to ring, until they finally called each other. Lamott describes the reviews, the book parties, the book signings at bookstores: they will all disappoint a writer who believes that he will become rich and famous through publication. True comfort lies in the fact that being a published writer is in itself an achievement.
She also warns against becoming hooked on the attention of being a published author. It is far wiser to concentrate on writing. Every time Lamott lets publishing go to her head, even briefly, she finds herself humbled. She recalls the time she desperately hoped to be invited to an illustrious literary event in San Francisco. Though she finally obtained an invitation, her name was omitted from several important announcements. She was upset until she remembered that this was a charity event, rather than a writer showcase. When Lamott finds herself getting hooked on the attention, she remembers advice that her pastor gave her: the world cannot give you serenity, but neither can it take serenity away.
Once again, Lamott describes the practice of giving, and how it directly pertains to writing. Though she has described giving to specific people in “Writing a Present,” in this chapter she engages in a more general discussion of giving. Her examples of giving are centered on children, and she draws numerous parallels between parenting and writing a book. Writing, like child rearing, can be difficult and unrewarding. But there is a sense of connection between the writer and his words that Lamott can only compare to the connection between parent and child. She advocates selflessly and continuously giving yourself to writing—much like parenting itself.
She notes that the sophistication and innocence inherent in children is an ideal state of being for writers. Lamott sees an innate wisdom in children and greatly values their openness to the world around them. Additionally, she admits to consciously seeking this quality in all of her friends.
Lamott’s discussion of publication is an intensely personal account of her own feelings and experiences. She views publication as exciting but ultimately unsatisfying. Her anecdotes focus most on the anxiety, self-doubt, self-criticism and disappointment of the publishing experience, rather than practical advice on how to get published. This makes Bird by Bird a peculiar kind of writing manual: it is far more inspirational and anecdotal than practical or mechanical. Ultimately, Lamott sees publishing as a false idol. Lamott advises her readers to find solace in their own creativity and in the practice of writing.
Lamott conveys that whenever she feels proud of being a published author, she is inevitably humbled. In addition to warning that publication can be unfulfilling, she also counsels against feeling excessive pride at being published. Publishing—and public acclaim, in general—can be distracting and even damaging to the writer. Instead, Lamott advocates serenity, which she finds from her church and from her writing. When she finds herself addicted to attention and adulation, she approaches her pastor for advice. According to her, too much pride in one’s accomplishments is damaging not only for writers but for everyone.
Summary: “The Last Class”
In the final class of her writing workshops, Lamott tries to reiterate all that she has taught her students. She emphasizes the importance of writing about one’s childhood, and about interesting things and strong feelings. She advocates writing in a personal manner about the things the writer finds real. She notes that the writer has an obligation to write the truth, and that the truth is almost always subversive. Lamott thinks it can be good even to write out of vengeance. She tells her students to use some of their hurtful memories from their past, but that they should change significant details in order to avoid a libel suit. Libel is defamation by the printed word: a situation in which a writer maliciously says things that puts other people in a false, damaging light. She advises writers to change the physical characteristics of their characters in order to avoid being sued. She also humorously advises giving male characters a very small penis so that the people they are modeled after will be reluctant to come forward.
Lamott relates the story of a student whose mother used to burn his hand on the stove when he misbehaved. The student was reluctant to write about this experience because his mother led such a difficult life. Lamott counseled him to change certain descriptive details about his mother, and when he took her advice, his story became a success. Writing about difficult things is about more than vengeance; it is about finding meaning in horrible events. Lamott also counsels her writers not to feel sorry for themselves when things are difficult, because writers can use these experiences as fodder for their work.
Lamott ends the story by praising the literary life, which she finds spiritually invigorating and intellectually challenging. Writers will feel a quiet sense of liberation and joy that comes from the creative life. Though Lamott believes that society is strange and often scary, she believes in the universality of artists. Because the writer writes, memories can’t be lost. Writers should strive to find joy in their work, and their writing allows others to find joy in an often complicated and uncertain world.
Lamott’s discussion of libel is one of two truly practical discussions in Bird by Bird (the other being her advice on note-taking). She believes that any strongly emotional event—good or bad—is acceptable material for writing. In fact, the more emotional the event, the more material Lamott believes the writer will glean from it. Therefore, her discussion on libel is not only appropriate but required. She counsels writers to use their creativity to change details about their most libelous characters. In this way, writers can still draw upon personal experiences without facing interference from the real world.
Throughout the book, Lamott asserts that writers are different from other people. But this section marks the first time that she suggests that writers are actually stronger than ordinary people. When counseling writers not to feel sorry for themselves, she notes that writers have resources (i.e., their creativity) that other people lack. Because of this, they should find themselves more resilient in the face of unfortunate events. Later in the chapter, Lamott states that writers prevent memories and experiences from being lost. The writer, therefore, has abilities that others do not. Ultimately, Lamott sees writers as those who are able to give solace to others in a difficult world.
In this chapter, she notes that the liberation brought upon by the literary life is one of the most rewarding existences one can hope for. The only way that one can achieve this liberation is through consistency and discipline. Writers should strive to sit in front of their computer at the same time every day, for the same length of time. In order to find fulfillment as a writer, she recommends that they accompany this work ethic with a spiritual faith. By emphasizing the larger picture of the literary life, Lamott proves that the process of writing is its true reward, and that any other goal is a mirage.
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