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Recommended Reading: Bird By Bird

There’s a book I turn to again and again when I’ve fired up my post editor but feel uninspired or just plain dejected: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Birds on the Wire by Colin (CC BY-SA 3.0).

I referenced Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions in Writing and Life in last week’s “Five Posts to Write Right Now,” and we’ve used her in Blogging 101 assignments as well. Personally, I turn to this book again and again — when I’m staring down a blank screen and a deadline or feeling just not good enough, flipping to any page usually restores my perspective and helps unclog my thorniest word-jam.

The story of the book’s title sums it up perfectly:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

How many more times and ways can we say it? Read this book.

How many more times and ways can we say it? Read this book.

If that’s not enough to get you to peck out a few words, I’ll let Anne continue to speak:

On perfectionism…

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

On the act of writing vs. the finished piece…

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

On how writing and reading (and, by extension, blogging) make a difference:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again.

It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

I’ll stop here, because this is Ms. Lamott’s book, not mine, but these quotes are a great snapshot of the tone and perspective that make this book so valuable.

As writers — or bloggers, or photographers, or insert-creative-pursuit here — it’s easy to get down on ourselves, to think that no one’s paying attention, or that we can’t possibly be as good as all the other amazing bloggers we read. For me, the beauty in Bird by Bird is that it helps me feel good again: about choosing to write, about dedicating myself to blogging, about my unique voice, about experimenting and making “messes” and playing with words and pictures to make stories.

Do you have go-to resources as a writer or photographer? What are they?

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  1. This book is about so much more than writing, isn’t it? It is a manual for living really. I love this book. It is always by my bedside table. She is who I want to be when I grow up…

  2. I haven’t read this, but I just used an OWL handout that used this in an example annotated bibliography! How funny to see it pop up on here. Looks like a great read.

  3. “The beauty in Bird by Bird is that it helps me feel good again.” Yes. This is exactly how Bird by Bird made me feel as well. It saved me when I was just beginning to make the transition into calling myself a writer.

    My go-to book is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. We used this book in highschool and did not appreciate it at that young age. When I reread it at the beginning of this year (in two sittings – it’s that good) I was suprised by how funny it is. I found myself chuckling at Strunk and White’s instructions in the “Misused Words and Expressions chapter:”

    “Prestigious. Often an adjective of last resort. It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.”

    Heh heh. They make me laugh. Anyway, I keep a copy of this book within arm’s reach of my writing station.

    1. The Elements of Style is a great read — writing and editing is largely an apprenticeship. Strunk and White are great mentors.

  4. This is just what I needed to hear today. A few days ago I had the passing thought of giving up the blogging, yet again. Thankfully I got a wave of inspiration the next day and churned out multiple posts. Bird By Bird always seems to top so many recommended reading lists for writers. How many times do I need to hear that before I buy my own copy? Not one more!!

  5. Here are some books I go to:
    On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
    Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction by Frank & Wall
    Page after Page by Heather Sellers
    Stephen King’s On Writing
    Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
    Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop
    Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do

    1. The Creative Writing instructor gave us Writing Down the Bones back at Uni. I remember finding it very down to earth and insightful.

  6. My favorite trio live together on the bookshelf: bird by bird, On Writing Well (William Zinsser), and Writing Tools (Roy Peter Clark).
    I keep pen on fire (Barbara DeMarco-Barrett in the kitchen and read snippets when I gobble down lunch. Buy lots of highlighters. You’re gonna need ‘em.

  7. @Michelle,
    Oh no! Now you’ve got me pursuing my top bookshelf where all my special books are. I frequently return to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and to here The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. I must get back to work now. :)

  8. Love most all of Anne Lamott! Her novels always captured my fancy, but Bird by Bird made me think that maybe I could be a writer too. She took the esoteric and frightening challenges of that inside-the-process world and made them, like her characters, both humorous and full of warmth. WAY less threatening.

    1. For some unreasonable reason, I have been resisting this book – which I’ve heard about for years. Seeing WordPress discuss it, and taking in all the comments from bloggers/writers, makes me rethink that resistance. Thanks guys! I needed this!

  9. Ms. Lamott’s book enjoys pride of place beside King’s On Writing, Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, Struik’s Elements of Style and Donald Maass’s Breakout Novelist… Like King, Lamott has a great way of adding humour and ‘life’ to differentiate these works from the very textbook like others out there…..

  10. I have “Bird by Bird” in open view in my home…I have read it so much, flipping through it to find certain “pieces” that it is worn. Ann is one of my favorite writers. I enjoy all of your post, but this one jumped right into my living space. Ann

  11. Love this! Finally getting started on my first blog this week. Read Ms. Lamott’s book years ago and it is now smiling at me from my bookshelf. Looking forward to picking it up again!

    Thanks for the inspiration :)

  12. I really did enjoy this book and would read it again now with intention. She was the keynote speaker at the writer’s harvest when I was working on the MFA and she really inspired me then as well. She’s a good speaker and has shaped many writers on their journey. Thanks for quoting some of her anecdotes.

  13. I particularly like her comment that writing is its own reward. It’s along the lines of what I’ve said in a page called ‘Re Awards’ on my own blog …

  14. Bird by Bird was an excellent read! Like many others here, I also enjoy Stephen King’s On Writing. A newer find for me is Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose. Sharp writing, great information on grammar, and plenty of interesting writing examples.

  15. I’m on board with “Bird by Bird”. Can also recommend Ray Bradbury’s “Zen and the at of writing”, Gabriele Rico “Writing the natural way” ” and if you’re a poet Mary Kinzie “A poet’s guide to poetry.”

  16. This is one of my favorite books! Constant inspiration in talking to people, blogging, creative writing, and even school writing

  17. maybe this is a sign that I’m up WAYYY too late, but those quotes actually got me a little choked up! so much great messaging out there, and substantial advice in both writing and life. consider me sold! thanks for the recommendation!