Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Anne Lamott - Bird by Bird

Books about writing have always seemed strange to me and I wouldn’t have read this one if it wasn’t recommended to help with my own work. I will say now that the book did help me in terms of building my confidence as a writer, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to attempt to tear it to shreds.

I’m going to start with the introduction. There is a mistake on the second page which led me to believe that Anne Lamott and Clive Cussler had the same writing tutor. Lamott makes up for Cussler’s missing words by repeating ‘at life.’ Making a mistake on the second page of a book about how to write is not a good start especially if Anne is trying to lead by example. After this, she then goes on to say she chooses to write because she’s good at it which means I get to use the word oxymoron for the first time on This is My Face.

Despite the early lapse, there are several useful bits on the very basics of writing. There is a section on just sitting down and doing some writing, instead of spending hours thinking about what to write, which is helpful to new writers and is quite effective at teaching. There are other good beginner’s tips, such as writing ‘shitty first drafts’ to get them out of your system and ‘short assignments’ as another way of just doing some writing.

However, all this earlier stuff leads up to one big assumption about the readers: that no one who wants to be a writer knows what kind of writing they want to do. She is assuming that all other writers are just like her. I’m not writing because I’m good at it. I do it because I’ve got a story I want to tell. There is no point in writing for the sake of it. Where is the enjoyment in that?

However, she goes on to question writers who have a message they want to convey. She writes, ‘If you have a message, as Samuel Goldwyn used to say, send a telegram.’ This put a smile on my otherwise angry face.

Despite my criticisms I have a lot of other nice things to say about the book. Out of the 237 pages, none of them feel wasted. There are some cuts that could be made, but that’s true of any book. Lamott uses humour very well. Her sentences are memorable and this alone makes Bird by Bird a strong piece of non-fiction.

I would recommend this book as essential reading to all creative writing students, especially those struggling with self-belief. It’s also handy to have around for new and experienced writers alike. Pages 110 to 130, I think, are the most helpful pages about writing I’ve ever read and on the whole, Bird by Bird is one of the best help books for writing and life.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott was published by Anchor Books in 1995. RRP £13.95 (This regular retail price appears on, where they are selling the book for £6.41. Somehow, I think the RRP is a wee bit exaggerated....)

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