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The author, Anne Lamott, begins the narrative by describing
her childhood and the importance of writing in her family. Her father was
a writer and a lover of literature, and the family went to the library
every week and often read together. When they were not spending
quiet nights reading at home, the family was visited by her father’s
writer friends, who often came over for drinks and dinner. Lamott
remembers wishing that her father was like other fathers who worked
in offices and returned home every evening. As an adult, she realizes
her father would have suffered in this kind of life.
As Lamott grows up, she realizes that she too is a writer. Although
she wants to fit in with her peers, the writing life feels more
comfortable to her than the traditional lives of her friends. Her sense
of alienation increases when her father writes a derogatory piece
about their home town, which impresses some people but angers others.
She then realizes that the life of a writer is often a lonely one.
In her teens, Lamott desperately tries to write something
of importance. She wonders if her father was as odd and lonely as
she was. Her first few attempts earn praise but are not particularly good.
She feels compelled to keep writing. She writes for the high school
paper and for journals, and over time she becomes adept at storytelling.
When she gets to college, she is enamored of literature and philosophy
and begins a postmodern novel. After college she flounders a bit,
but her father encourages her to write every day. Her father’s agent
is also encouraging—though she doesn’t offer to represent Lamott.
When Lamott’s father is diagnosed with brain cancer, she
begins to write about his ordeal and its impact on her family. This
time, her father’s agent is encouraging, and the book is eventually
published. Lamott thinks she is going to be rich and famous. The
book is well received, but it soon becomes apparent that she will
not immediately be able to retire on her earnings.
Lamott continues to write and to teach writing to others.
She warns readers that they must write because they enjoy the writing process,
not because of the remote possibility of fame and fortune. She describes
writing as a kind of magic, and a kind of disease that some catch.
Lamott wants to help those who truly want to write, but she notices
that her students often fixate instead on being published and the
business side of writing. While she is willing to share what she
knows about these realms, she cautions her students about the very
real difficulties of being a writer. Lamott wants people to write because
they want to, and because they feel they must. She concludes by
saying that Bird by Bird is a summary of everything
she has learned about writing.
In her introduction, Lamott takes a traditional approach,
providing the reader with a brief outline of her life and involvement
with writing. Stories about her own life are an integral part of
Lamott’s approach to teaching writing. Throughout the novel, Lamott
tells personal stories in order to illustrate her points. She often
mentions her friends, writers and nonwriters alike. This approach
makes Bird by Bird more than a writing manual.
The book can also be read as both a guide to the writing life, as
well as life in general. For Lamott, writing and living are often
two sides of the same coin, and she approaches both from a spiritual
Lamott’s descriptions of her childhood are not comprehensive. For
the most part, she discusses memories that pertain to writing. One
of the few exceptions is her description of interacting with her peers.
Lamott says that she was a “loser” who was accepted because of her
unique sense of humor and ability to tell stories. Although she often
felt that her life, personality, and family made her odd, she eventually
realizes that her writing will allow her to connect with others.
In college, writing helped Lamott find community. She found a group
of like-minded people and began to write in earnest. Through her
writing, she found people with similar goals and personalities.
Being an oddball wasn’t about being lonely anymore; it was about
being around other oddballs.
Lamott’s relationship with her father made her feel that
all writers are strange and extraordinary creatures. She describes
her father’s odd hours, unusual interests, and somewhat disreputable writer
friends and suggests that most writers find life difficult and will
often stumble. And some writers, like Lamott’s father, are simply
not cut out for anything but writing.
Lamott’s father greatly influenced her interest in writing,
and she derives many of her opinions about writing from him. She
internalizes his advice about how to tackle overwhelming tasks,
and her first successful novel is inspired by his struggle with
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bird by Bird!