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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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bird by Bird!