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Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. How does Lamott use writing as a therapeutic process?

Lamott relies on writing to work through emotional problems such as insecurity and jealousy. For example, when she is plagued by her jealousy, she turns to her friends for advice. But it is only through writing about it that Lamott accepts her jealousy as a part of herself. Through writing, Lamott is able to accept her darker impulses and her neuroses. Similarly, she deals with her frustration during her son’s first year of life by writing a book about her conflicting feelings. For Lamott, writing is therapeutic because it allows her to calmly view the confusion within herself. She advises her students to search for the truth by continually writing about memories and other events about which they are passionate.

Lamott also uses her writing to deal with the external tragedies of life, most notably the deaths of her friend Pam and her father. The book about her father is both a tribute and a way for Lamott to deal with a difficult situation. Lamott also turns to writing when her friend Pam is diagnosed with breast cancer. Though these writings are initially journal entries and often mixed with her musings about her son, she soon transforms them into a gift that she can give Pam. By using her creative impulses to survive difficult situations, Lamott is able to help both herself and those she loves. Writing makes her powerful when she is facing death or tragedy.

2. What roles do children and childhood play in the book?

Lamott frequently refers to children in Bird by Bird. She culls a great deal of wisdom from the innocent words of her son Sam. Children, with their blend of sophistication and innocence, often inspire Lamott. She believes that these traits are invaluable to writers because they encourage people to step beyond their rigid boundaries and look at the world anew. The children in this book are particularly clever and expressive. The mentality of children serves as a reminder of what Lamott considers the ideal mentality for a writer.

Lamott also suggests that writers write about their childhoods. She gives this advice at the beginning of her book, and she takes pains to repeat it in the last chapter. Childhood is, for Lamott, a period of intense emotions and passion, as well as upheaval and chaos. She does not idealize childhood, but she does see it as a constant source of material for writers. Lamott herself specializes in both fiction and nonfiction that is often autobiographical, so it is only fitting that she advocates that her students mine their childhood for stories. She also believes that events in childhood can inspire even those who do not wish to write memoir-style stories. Writers must strive to remain captivated by the world, as children are.

3. How does Lamott deal with the idea of sight and seeing?

Lamott emphasizes the importance of sight as she describes how writers must view the world. In order to write morally, and to write the truth, writers must be hyperaware and mindful of the world around him. To produce good writing, writers must notice the smaller details that others would normally miss. Additionally, writers must be passionately interested in the world, and find meaning in simple, ordinary occurrences. Nowhere is this more important than the chapter in which Lamott describes school lunches. She starts with lunches in general, but soon begins focusing minutely on details such as the shape of carrot sticks. As she continues writing small descriptions, she is able to glimpse the beginnings of a meaningful story.

Additionally, Lamott uses sight as a metaphor for the act and processes involved in writing. More than once, she “sees” a story slowly unfold in front of her eyes; often, she compares the development of her stories with the development of a photograph. Both the story and photograph require patience and faith, but the end result is accessible to anyone. A good story, for Lamott, is something that writers (and readers) can actually see, and therefore, experience. Lamott uses sight as a metaphor for self-discovery as well. The ordinary man has the option to ignore certain parts of himself, but writers cannot afford to do this. A writer must see everything and incorporate it into his work. In doing so, he not only discovers his voice, but finds a way to reveal universal truths. Clear sight, therefore, is almost the only way to find the truth in writing.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How does Lamott relate childhood and writing in Bird by Bird?

2. How can the advice in Bird by Bird be used to write books that are not rooted in reality, such as science fiction or fantasy?

3. How do Lamott’s students influence her writing and her beliefs?

4. In what ways does Lamott emphasize discipline and organization in both writing and life?

5. How does Lamott’s role as a mother affect her advice on writing?

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