Lamott begins Bird by Bird with an introduction describing her lifelong love of books and her father’s influence on her life and writing. Although she often wished that her father had a “regular” job like other fathers, she gradually began to realize that being a writer was the best job for him. She eventually followed in his footsteps. At an early age, Lamott realized that she possessed an uncanny ability to write engaging and often funny stories. But even with this ability, she was not an instant success as a writer. When her father fell ill with brain cancer, she was inspired to write about her family’s struggles. Her father’s agent accepted her manuscript, which was eventually published, and Lamott has worked as a writer ever since. She wrote Bird by Bird in order to share with the reader everything she knows about writing.
In Part One, Lamott addresses the daunting task of beginning to write. She talks about how writers should strive to write at the same time every day and urges them to give themselves short, discrete assignments rather than long, complicated ones. She keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk that reminds her to write about small things in detail before embarking on large projects. Often, these small exercises lead to valuable writing material, as in her anecdote about school lunches. In the writing exercise that describes a lunch preparation, Lamott explains how the process of writing about mundane details provides the seeds of an interesting story. Lamott also encourages writers to give themselves permission to write imperfect first drafts, since this is an integral part of story development. Self-criticism and perfectionism can be writers’ worst enemies, but writers must somehow continue to write even as self-doubt plagues them. Lamott finds it helpful to believe in God or another higher power when fighting these enemies, and her spirituality permeates Bird by Bird.
Lamott then addresses the more technical details of writing, comparing the process of writing to the slow development of a Polaroid picture. Characters develop organically, and writers must foster this development by loving each of their characters. Each character should be readily identifiable by what he or she says, and in most cases the narrator should be a lovable figure. Also, good dialogue is integral to a story. Plot should develop from character, and writers shouldn’t try to cram characters into plots that don’t suit them. She points out that a good plot treatment (i.e., a brief summation of what happens in the story) can be a valuable tool for a story that is in trouble. She recalls a book of hers that was rejected by her editor even after multiple revisions. Only when she described the plot treatment did her editor understand the problem: the story that existed on paper was far different from the one that existed in Lamott’s head.
Part Two examines “The Writing Frame of Mind.” Lamott implores writers to remain aware of and reverent toward the world around them. She also states that good writing must be moral. By this she means that one’s writing must be driven by one’s deepest beliefs, as it is this level of passion that creates the best writing. Lamott calls the critical voices in her head Radio Station KFKD (a name that becomes hilarious when pronounced aloud) and frequently concentrates on silencing them. These voices can lead to jealousy, a trait which she denounces as one of the worst handicaps a writer can possess. Jealousy of other writers—or anyone else—is counterproductive and should be avoided at all costs.
In Part Three, Lamott emphasizes the importance of community in writing. She thinks that writer’s groups can be a good source of community, but that they can also be hotbeds of criticism. Writers must be extremely discriminating when deciding with whom to share their writing. She stresses the importance of having another person read your writing. Someone else’s input is extremely valuable, especially for beginning writers. When her students are stumped, she suggests that they write to friends and family about important events in their lives. This exercise often triggers important memories that can serve as fodder for writing. Finally she addresses the curse of writer’s block: patience and faith are the only real cures. A block will always pass, she believes.
In Part Four, Lamott reminds her readers that their writing can be a gift. She frequently uses writing in her own life in order to memorialize someone for whom she cares deeply. She discusses her writing as a reaction to the deaths of her father and her friend Pam. Writing about these events helped her come to terms with her grief. Lamott goes on to demand that her students find their own voice. Her students often mimic famous writers, which prohibits them from writing truthfully. She implores them not to shy away from detailing the more uncomfortable moments in their lives; in fact, it is these moments that often lead to the best writing. Briefly, Lamott touches on the much-hyped process of publishing. She recalls her intense anxieties during the process of publishing and notes that while there are some pleasurable moments, publication itself is not enough to make a writer happy.
Lamott concludes that being a writer is the best life she can imagine. For her, the best thing about being a writer is the pride she feels at producing such satisfying work. Writing feeds Lamott’s soul and helps her to love the world. Bird by Bird expresses her desire to share the joy that writing brings to her life.