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Lamott emphasizes telling the truth and says it is a primary
component of good writing. She advises her students to start by
writing about their childhoods. If the enormity of this topic seems
overwhelming, she suggests starting with memories of their first
few years of school. However, the important thing is to just begin
writing something and to capture the details of some event. If this doesn’t
work, Lamott advises writing about a particular holiday. Ultimately,
writing is simply a matter of sitting down and plunging in. Writers
may suffer from insecurities, worries, and distractions, but it
is crucial to continue to write and persist with faith, despite
the obstacles the mind might throw at you.
Lamott emphasizes that something salvageable can often
be found, even in a piece of bad writing. Writers must be open to
the twists and turns their stories take, even if those twists and
turns result in an entirely different story than the one they originally planned
to write. Her students respond to Lamott’s writing advice by asking
how they can find an agent. But Lamott continues to emphasize the
actual process of writing rather than publication.
Lamott’s students are fixated on being published. She
repeatedly cautions both her students and her readers that publication
is not some magical solution that will rescue writers from the hardships
In “Short Assignments,” Lamott states that novice writers should
always start with short assignments so they are not overwhelmed.
Lamott then describes how she sits down to write each day and how
she is utterly unfocused until her glance falls on the square, one-inch
picture frame on her desk. The little picture frame reminds her
to focus on just a small piece of the whole story. When a writer
starts with a small focus and then widens it gradually, the story
will come together more easily.
Lamott describes the advice her father gave to her brother
when he was overwhelmed by a school project on birds. Her father
told her brother to take it “bird by bird.” Along those same lines,
Lamott advises her students to focus on small steps, rather than
on the entire project.
In Part One, Lamott discusses her students’ response to
her methods of teaching and suggests that her students are too concerned
with getting published. Lamott is far more interested in teaching
them how to write. Additionally, as she points out, there is no
secret to publishing success.
However, even when her students misinterpret her or do
not listen, Lamott is good-humored. She remains devoted to writing
and teaching, and she understands her students’ interest in the
publishing world, even as she tries to keep it in check. While many
writing guides focus on the finer points of the publishing business,
Lamott goes out of her way to make it clear that this is not her
Lamott often talks about “small things,” both in life
and in writing. She explains how writers can discover large stories
by beginning with the smaller details. In some ways, this methodology
is similar in spirit to a religious ceremony, where the focus is
on ritual that inspires faith in a greater force. Lamott’s use of
the small picture frame to remind her to work on details is a meditative
technique, and it focuses her on a manageable task.
When Lamott describes the act of writing, she refers to
“mining a vein of memories.” In encouraging students to write about
their families and their memories, Lamott emphasizes a memoir-inspired style
of writing much like her own. This reinforces the idea that writing
is a private process that is connected to family and personal experiences.
Lamott suggests that writing about memories will often mean reliving
or channeling painful and uncomfortable details, but it will also
occasionally provide catharsis, and it will always give you good
source material for writing.
Lamott disputes the misconception that successful writers
simply sit down and churn out fully formed passages and chapters.
Instead, she suggests that nearly every writer, no matter how successful, writes
what she calls a “shitty first draft.” In fact, Lamott suggests that
a shitty first draft is an almost obligatory starting point. She recalls
writing restaurant reviews for California magazine.
Her reviews would take shape only after she gave herself permission
to write a terrible first draft.
Lamott addresses the “other voices” that exist in the
head of every writer: the critic, the perfectionist, and so on.
Every writer can be plagued by these voices, and fighting the voices
is part of the process of writing. She recommends a mental exercise
in which the writer listens to the voice, envisions the speaker
turning into a mouse, and then imagines dropping the mouse into
a bottle. One must keep writing even though the inner voices are
saying that the work is no good.
Lamott discusses perfectionism and the terrible pressure
it can create. She believes that it can almost certainly ruin your
work, and therefore it is essential to push past it. Lamott states
that a belief in God is helpful with this problem. If writers don’t
believe in God, it is then helpful to be compassionate toward their
own attempts at writing. She describes how a good story is like
a thin thread of smoke that the writer must follow. The quest for
perfectionism will prevent the writer from following this thread
and finding the story.
When a student complains of writer’s block, Lamott suggests writing
about school lunches. She believes that the dynamics of writing
and the dynamics of school lunches are very similar. As in writing,
the school lunch has many facets: the fact that fathers inevitably
screw up at making a school lunch; the idea that the sandwich bread
must be white; and even the desire to have limp lettuce so other
kids won’t tease. The entire concept of the subject is so broad that
it is best to focus on one small part of the lunch itself. This
mental exercise helps students to realize that only by zoning in
on the specifics can one really begin the process of writing.
When asked for her best piece of advice on writing, Lamott recalls
the response of writer Natalie Goldberg. Goldberg had held up a
yellow pad and mimed writing on it, implying that the best way to
improve one’s writing is to just sit down and do it. Lamott says that
this Zen-like advice is the best she has heard.
At the end of the lunch exercise, Lamott finds herself
recalling a loner who always sat by a fence along the edge of the
schoolyard. It takes a while for Lamott to remember this interesting
character, but through the process she arrives at what she feels
is the beginning of an interesting story. This confirms the point
of the exercise: to discover a story you didn’t know existed when
you started writing. Lamott compares writing to developing a Polaroid;
the story, like the photo, develops over time. She recalls attending
the Special Olympics to write an article. At first she found the
search for a story slow and tedious, but eventually a story developed
and took on a life of its own. Her patience allowed the story to
develop over the course of a day.
Lamott’s most important piece of advice to aspiring writers
is to sit down and write without worrying too much about the result.
This is the theme of the chapter called “Shitty First Drafts.” By
giving writers a sense of their creative freedom, she reminds them
they can be as out of control and goofy as they want. It is the
act of writing, rather than the final result, that is crucial. Unlike
the urge to write (which she describes as magical), the practice
of writing is a craft.
In this chapter, Lamott makes direct references to God
and Christianity. Lamott, a devout Christian, often emphasizes the
mystical aspects of writing, and she draws on the teachings of various
religions to convey the difficulties of a writer’s job. As in most
religions, Lamott’s writing involves blind faith, perseverance,
discipline, and a connection to something greater than herself.
In order to deal with the trials and tribulations of writing, Lamott
emphasizes discipline and perseverance in the face of self-doubt.
She advises struggling writers to write about childhood memories
or any random subject in order to just keep the pen moving as much
as possible. In short, she asks the writer to have faith, even when
everything seems bleak.
Lamott’s discussion of “inner voices” is her attempt to
quell the fears and uncertainty that plague most writers. In order
to deal with guilt, paranoia, and criticism, she thinks of them
as beings with individual personalities and often does visualization
exercises in order to banish them. In other words, she vanquishes
the voices that hinder creativity through more creativity.
Lamott refers to her friend’s idea that each person is
given one emotional square acre of his own. To know a character,
writers must know everything in that character’s emotional acre,
from what the character carries in her purse to what she likes to
eat. Characters must develop organically, rather than forcing predetermined
behavior and actions on them. Lamott emphasizes that characters,
like stories, develop over time. Each character grows out of a different part
of the writer’s personality, which means the writer will both love
and hate his or her characters.
Lamott says nothing is more important than a likable narrator, and
writers themselves must like the narrators they create. While the narrator
must have faults, she must never be boring or annoying to the reader.
The narrator must be interesting and reliable, unless unreliability
is one of his intended flaws. The writer’s job is ultimately to
tell the truth about the characters.
Lamott believes that plot grows out of character; consequently,
a story must never be forced on its characters. As an example, she
uses Faulkner’s plots, which emerge from his flawed, beautiful,
crazy characters. She emphasizes that the plot must be like a dream
that is “vivid and continuous.” The reader must want to keep reading,
just as you might want to keep dreaming to find out what happens
next. She also thinks it is helpful for someone else to read your
work and serve as “the executioner” to passages that don’t work.
Lamott says that if she gives her class a topic to write
on—for example, two people going through a divorce—every student
will come up with a different story. The power of the plot comes
from traditional elements of drama: the setup, buildup, and payoff.
Lamott explains that a good climax will unfold slowly from all the
previous actions and change at least one character profoundly.
Dialogue is particularly important, because good dialogue
can give a story life and bad dialogue can ruin it. Lamott recommends reading
dialogue out loud to decide whether it sounds realistic. She also
says that readers must be able to identify each character by what
he says. She suggests putting characters who hate each other together
and seeing what develops. Dialogue shows an emotional understanding
of characters, and writers should have some compassion for all of
their characters. Finally, she recommends visualizing a “helper”
in your head who hands you information about your characters from
In describing the creation of character, Lamott draws
from her own experiences. She thinks characters are often just waiting
to be found. Once again, she stresses the importance of perseverance
and faith. Writers must go through a long, slow process of discovery—not
unlike self-discovery—in order to create compelling characters. Lamott
makes the process of characterization very personal. In describing
what she considers an “interesting” character, she draws from herself,
her friends, and her relatives, blurring the lines between real
and fictional characters. Lamott says characters must be likable.
For her, likable characters have personalities similar to those
of her friends. For other writers, likable characters may have another
kind of personality. What’s important is the writer’s attitude toward
her characters, not the characters’ specific traits.
Lamott’s descriptions of plot development focus not on
the mechanics of creating a story but instead on the idea that stories develop
from the characters. Plot will simply occur if writers create interesting
characters. She refers to several writers, including John Gardner
and E. M. Forester, to support her idea that plot is derived from
the behavior of a given character, especially when that character
is faced with unusual or difficult situations. By avoiding a discussion
of the mechanics of plot, Lamott stays true to her theory that learning
to write is like learning to live. She is less interested in the mechanics
of either, preferring to describe the story that is written properly
and the life that is lived properly.
In her discussions of the technical aspects of writing,
such as plot, character, and dialogue, Lamott generally advocates
faith in the writing process as a cure-all. Writers must believe
that they will discover characters and come up with natural, unforced
dialogue. This organic approach to writing is less specific than
the advice often found in how-to books, which advocate more organized,
methodical approaches to writing. In many instances, Lamott sidesteps
strict instructions in favor of a more general philosophy. She speaks
of writing as a valuable process that results in a living, breathing organism
with various wants and needs.
According to Lamott, one of the best ways to design a
story setting is to do research with experts in a particular field.
If a story is set in a wealthy neighborhood, the writer should interview
a wealthy person and learn about her life. Lamott says that when
she wrote a novel that involved gardening, a topic about which she
knew little, she contacted a greenhouse and spoke to a gardener
who helped her design a fictional garden. Based on her research,
she was able to create a character so believable that Lamott’s readers
assumed Lamott was an avid gardener. Lamott says that in addition
to research, she often visualizes her settings before she starts
In the next chapter, Lamott describes an artist who envisioned
his painting in a particular way. Whenever he saw the final product,
he would redo it. With each false start, the artist knew more about what
he didn’t want and therefore came closer to what he did want. Lamott
says the false starts of writing are often like this painter’s work.
Lamott describes her monthly visits to a nursing home,
where she talks with the elderly, and often dying, patients. She
feels depressed and demoralized by the visits, but she keeps going.
She realizes that these people might be stripped of all their vitality
and health, but they retain their humanity. Writers must scrutinize
their characters and discern what is beneath the surface, just as
Lamott scrutinizes the nursing home residents. Often, what the writer
starts with is not the true soul or center of the character. The
underlying essence of the story will come to the surface in surprising
ways, after all the externals have been stripped away.
A plot treatment can carry the essence of the story, which
may end up being quite different from the story the writer first
envisioned. When she was writing her second novel, Lamott thought
she had a clear understanding of the climax. She had been working
for two years and had spent most of her advance when her editor
wrote her a polite letter advising her to abandon the novel entirely. Instead,
Lamott devoted more time to the project and entirely reconstructed
the novel. When she felt she had succeeded, she triumphantly sent
the revised novel to her editor and wrote a note saying she was
coming for a consultation.
Her editor felt that the novel still didn’t work. Lamott
was crushed and insisted on visiting the editor at his home to make
a final plea. At his house, she passionately described the point
of the novel, the characters’ relationships, and the hidden themes
of her story. The editor told her to go off and write a plot treatment
(i.e., a description of the plot) of the story in her head, rather
than the story she had handed to her editor.
Lamott’s students often want to see the plot treatment
described in this story. When they do, they pore over it in the
hopes of uncovering a magic formula, which doesn’t happen. Still,
plot treatments can be a guide to what is truly important in a novel.
When students ask how they will know when their novel is done, Lamott
says finishing a novel is like putting an octopus under a bed. Tentacles
keep reaching out, but eventually the writer just doesn’t have any
more energy to wrestle with it.
In this section, Lamott addresses the idea that writing
can lead to a heightened sense of community. In the chapter called
“Set Design,” for example, she advises writers who need to do research
to reach out to people rather than the Internet or the library.
Her picture of writers chatting to experts on the phone directly
contradicts the stereotype of the lonely, isolated writer scribbling
at his desk.
Lamott discusses her phone conversations with a gardener,
her visits to nursing homes, and her discussions with her New York
editor. Each interaction provides her with material for her writing
and teaches her lessons about life—which also turn out to be lessons about
writing. Although she has previously described the writer as a strange
and unusual creature, Lamott suggests in this section that writers
can also find a place in the community and connection with other
Lamott’s interaction with her New York editor saves the
novel she is working on. Her trip to his house is depicted as an
act of desperation. Through a combination of liquor and frustration,
she eventually lands on her editor’s doorstep. Lamott struggles
to explain to him the essence of her book and succeeds, coming up
with a captivating plot treatment as she speaks. But her editor
tells her that the plot she described out loud is far different
from what she put on the page.
In this section, Lamott continues to emphasize the mysticism
of writing rather than the mechanics. She suggests that she found
the heart of her novel through emotion and desperation, not through following
certain steps or sticking to a rigid routine.
Lamott explains her views on death and dying by describing
her visits to the nursing home. She introduced the subject of death
earlier in the book when she described her father’s struggle with
brain cancer, but here she explores the subject in greater detail.
Her descriptions of the nursing home are both disturbing and touching. The
descriptions also emphasize her willingness to turn the tragedy of
dying into lessons on writing. Lamott describes her friend Pam, who
is ill with cancer, as wise, perhaps because she understands life better
in the face of death.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bird by Bird!