Book Summary: Bird by Bird

Terrific read on the power of discovering our inner voice and building the confidence to express our truth with the world. Also, a great primer on the writing process, full of tips and techniques to bring your stories to life.

The following are the passages I most enjoyed from the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. All content credit goes to the author(s).


I. On Writing

We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.

On Truth-Telling

  • Good writing is about telling the truth.
  • We, as writers, tell the truth. A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of the truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.

On the Writing Process

  • Start with short assignments.
    You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.
  • Produce a shitty first draft.
    Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something, anything, down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft, you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft, you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately.

On Silencing 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 Polaroid Writing

  • Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t, and, in fact, you’re not supposed to, know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.
  • And finally, as the portrait comes into focus, you begin to notice all the props surrounding these people, and you begin to understand how props define us and comfort us, and show us what we value and what we need, and who we think we are.

On Building Character

  • Each of your characters has an emotional acre that they tend, or don’t tend, in certain specific ways.
  • You need to find out as much as possible about the interior life of the people you are working with.
  • Think of the basket of each character’s life:
    • What holds the ectoplasm together?
    • What are this person’s routines, beliefs?
    • What little things would your characters write in their journals?

On Building Plot

  • Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake. Find a way to express this discovery in action, and then let your people set about finding or holding onto or defending whatever it is. Then you can take them from good to bad and back again, or from bad to good, or from lost to found. But something must be at stake or you will have no tension and your readers will not turn the pages.

On Drama

  • Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention. The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff, just like a joke. The setup tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, Why are we here anyway? What is it that you’ve been trying to give?

On Short Stories

  • A formula when writing a short story, which goes ABDCE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending. You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot, the drama, the actions, the tension, will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?

On Dialogue

  • You’re not reproducing actual speech, you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words. You’re putting down on paper your sense of how the characters speak.
  • You should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you; each one must have a self.

On Set Design

  • Every room is a little showcase of its occupants’ values and personalities. Every room is about memory. Every room gives us layers of information about our past and present and who we are, our shrines and quirks and hopes and sorrows, our attempts to prove that we exist and are more or less Okay.

II. Writing Frame of Mind

Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.

On Looking Around

  • Your job is to present clearly your viewpoint, your line of vision. Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others.

On a Moral Point of View

  • The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.
  • Your whole piece is the truth, not just one shining epigrammatic moment in it. There will need to be some kind of unfolding in order to contain it, and there will need to be layers.
  • There is no point gathering an audience and demanding its attention unless you have something to say that is important and constructive.

On Trusting your Intuition

  • You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance. You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.

III. Help Along the Way

All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh, wild way.

Writing Techniques

  • Use index cards or tricks to capture notes on moments from everyday life.
  • Call around, share your work and ask for feedback.
  • Join or form a writing group, as a positive social constructs, to build your community around writing and supporting each other.
  • Find someone who does not mind reading your drafts and sharing suggestions.

On Writer’s Block

  • Everything we need in order to tell our stories in a reasonable and exciting way already exists in each of us. Everything you need is in your head and memories, in all that your senses provide, in all that you’ve seen and thought and absorbed. There in your unconscious, where the real creation goes on, is the little kid or the Dr. Seuss creature in the cellar, arranging and stitching things together. When this being is ready to hand things up to you, to give you a paragraph or a sudden move one character makes that will change the whole course of your novel, you will be entrusted with it.

IV. Reasons to Write

We write to expose the unexposed.

On Finding your Voice

  • The truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.

On Giving

  • You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward.

On Innocence

  • Writing takes a combination of sophistication and innocence; it takes conscience, our belief that something is beautiful because it’s right. To be great, art has to point somewhere.
  • This sophisticated innocence is a gift. It is yours to give away. We are wired as humans to be open to the world instead of enclosed in a fortified, defensive mentality. What your giving can do is to help your readers be braver, be better than they are, be open to the world again.

V. The Last Class

Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious.

The Artist’s Mindset

  • You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.

Why Write?

  • “So why does our writing matter, again?” they ask. Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. 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 greatly enjoyed this book, and believe there is something in it for most of us. Even if you don’t plan on becoming a writer, consider the importance of learning to connect the world with a renewed energy, while expanding our ability to connect with ourselves and what’s truly going on in our lives.

All content credit goes to the author. I’ve simply shared the bits I’ve enjoyed the most and found most useful.

Cheers ’till next time!

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