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.