Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Bird by Bird is devoted to explaining the art of writing, which Lamott quickly distinguishes from the business of publishing. Writing is an act of the soul, necessary for a writer’s survival; publishing is merely a prize on one’s mantel. Lamott is constantly frustrated by her students’ focus on the details of publishing, rather than the craft of writing. She notes that publishing will not change your life, and that many published writers are quite unhappy. She also says that the thrill of being published can wear off quickly. Writing, however, nourishes the spirit, creates community, gives back to loved ones, and combats inner demons. Though Lamott does devote one chapter to publishing at the end of Bird by Bird, the chapter is mostly a warning not to devote oneself to the roller coaster ride of the business.
In general, the act of writing is an act of faith for Lamott. However, she does not directly incorporate her religious beliefs into Bird by Bird, but the book, and its advice on writing, centers around issues of faith—not religious faith specifically, but faith in oneself. Most of Lamott’s advice stresses the importance of having faith in one’s ability as a writer, even when things seem bleak. She advocates faith as a way to deal with everything from creating characters to dealing with writer’s block to writing about difficult subjects. Lamott does mention religious faith when she says that the cure for perfectionism is belief in God. In the face of troubles, faith is a combination of patience and optimism. It is the belief that the writer’s problems will eventually be solved.
For Lamott, one of the most valuable aspects of writing is its tendency to create communities. Lamott first understands this when she realizes that her ability to tell funny stories makes her peers respect and accept her. Although she discusses the drawbacks of spending too much time alone, Lamott never seems to connect writing with loneliness, as many people do. For her, writing is a way to connect with people and society. Her writing bridges gaps and helps her form relationships. Lamott tells many stories about receiving wisdom and comfort from her friends. By including these references to her friends, Lamott emphasizes the value of community in both writing and in solving life’s problems.