Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Bird by Bird is devoted to explaining the art of writing, which Lamott quickly distinguishes from the business of publishing. Writing is an act of the soul, necessary for a writer’s survival; publishing is merely a prize on one’s mantel. Lamott is constantly frustrated by her students’ focus on the details of publishing, rather than the craft of writing. She notes that publishing will not change your life, and that many published writers are quite unhappy. She also says that the thrill of being published can wear off quickly. Writing, however, nourishes the spirit, creates community, gives back to loved ones, and combats inner demons. Though Lamott does devote one chapter to publishing at the end of Bird by Bird, the chapter is mostly a warning not to devote oneself to the roller coaster ride of the business.
In general, the act of writing is an act of faith for Lamott. However, she does not directly incorporate her religious beliefs into Bird by Bird, but the book, and its advice on writing, centers around issues of faith—not religious faith specifically, but faith in oneself. Most of Lamott’s advice stresses the importance of having faith in one’s ability as a writer, even when things seem bleak. She advocates faith as a way to deal with everything from creating characters to dealing with writer’s block to writing about difficult subjects. Lamott does mention religious faith when she says that the cure for perfectionism is belief in God. In the face of troubles, faith is a combination of patience and optimism. It is the belief that the writer’s problems will eventually be solved.
For Lamott, one of the most valuable aspects of writing is its tendency to create communities. Lamott first understands this when she realizes that her ability to tell funny stories makes her peers respect and accept her. Although she discusses the drawbacks of spending too much time alone, Lamott never seems to connect writing with loneliness, as many people do. For her, writing is a way to connect with people and society. Her writing bridges gaps and helps her form relationships. Lamott tells many stories about receiving wisdom and comfort from her friends. By including these references to her friends, Lamott emphasizes the value of community in both writing and in solving life’s problems.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
A repeated motif in Bird by Bird is the importance of memories. Memories become a primary source of writing, and the underlying motivation for writing. Lamott refers to memories early in the book, when she describes encouraging her students to write specifically about their childhoods. She herself writes about her own memories throughout Bird by Bird; the book is partly a memoir and a record of her life of writing. She also echoes the common sentiment that writers should write what they know. She also says that writers should not make the mistake of indulging themselves and assuming that everything that happened to them is important and noteworthy. Memories are simply the starting point for writing, the means of discovering what experiences arouse passion and need to be shared.
Lamott often refers to people in her life who are either ill or dying. In addition to Pam and Mr. Lamott, both of whom inspired Lamott’s writing, Lamott also describes the short life of baby Brice. She describes visits to the nursing home, where she interacts with the elderly, often infirm patients. She even suggests that writers write as if they are dying the next day. Dying, for Lamott, is a reminder of the precious feeling of living life and the passion that comes from writing. Lamott also sees dying and illness as a necessary part of life. She allows her young son to see Brice’s dead body, and she refuses to turn away from the challenges of death. Lamott also refers to physical and mental illness, often in humorous, self-deprecating prose. Lamott’s treatment of both motifs suggests that illness and death are less awful if approached with grace and acceptance.
Lamott rarely expresses just one side of any subject or defends a strong opinion. Instead, she refers to the conflict between opposing views, a conflict she feels is necessary in order to write and live well. You must write about both life and death. You can both love your child and want to throw him away. You can feel both love and hate, often at the same time. This conflict between opposing forces is a necessary part of life. Balance is the key, as Lamott shows by making peace with her own darker thoughts and the troubling events in her life. In fact, Lamott believes that the truth can emerge only when one tries to see the whole picture, rather than viewing the world through any one viewpoint.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Lamott believes that the smaller things in life, the details, should be a primary focus for a writer. Her reasoning is twofold: first, the focus on details enhances the writing; and second, this focus alleviates anxiety and helps to calm the writer. For example, Lamott describes a one-inch picture frame, which reminds her to work with small subjects and start slowly. Lamott also talks about using index cards as her version of notebooks—small and portable, they allow her to record events quickly and in detail. Lamott makes multiple references to the wisdom of small children. The most notable emphasis on small things is the title itself, derived from some advice Lamott’s father gave her brother. Lamott’s father told his son to take a massive school project on birds “bird by bird,” instead of thinking of the enormity of the whole task. The advice was to take writing—and life—one small thing at a time.
Photographs symbolize captured memories, and Lamott advises writers to write as if they were capturing a moment in a photograph. More specifically, Lamott compares the act of writing to the development of a Polaroid. Both require patience and faith. Neither can be rushed. And the final product is not entirely predictable. One must simply take the steps necessary for the story or the photograph to appear. Many of Lamott’s descriptions of her own essays include comparisons to Polaroids, and she makes it clear that the story she originally has in mind is not always the story she ends up writing. Photographs symbolize the purpose and the method of writing, as well as the faith required to capture a memory for posterity.
Lamott states that she is worried about being seen as a fundamentalist, and although she makes numerous references to her faith, she does not engage specifically in Christian rhetoric. She does refer often to her church, usually when she is describing a difficult period or a dilemma she faces. For example, she goes to church before flying to the East Coast for an interview, a trip she fears. She goes to her pastor when the temptations of publishing distress her. Church for Lamott is place of solace, wisdom, and rejuvenation. It symbolizes both faith and community. Lamott requires the formal structure of the church, which is also one of the few organizations that give Lamott a feeling of comfort and safety. Church, with its accompanying structure and organization, represents sanctuary for Lamott when both life and writing become too difficult.