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.