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Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott

Part Three: Help Along the Way

Part Two: The Writing Frame of Mind

Part Three: Help Along the Way, page 2

page 1 of 3

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.

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