Bird by Bird: Anne Lamott’s Timeless Guide to Writing & Life

8 Jul 2024 The Writing Craft

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is a love letter to the writing life by an author who understands the struggles and triumphs of we who dare to put words onto the page.

With her trademark wit and wisdom, Lamott offers practical advice on everything from character development to dealing with writer’s block. 

She reminds us why we write in the first place: to make sense of the world, to connect with others, and to find beauty in the chaos.

What Is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott?

It’s a collection of essays and anecdotes that cover the writing process and the challenges that come with it. Lamott shares her insights on topics like getting started and also allowing yourself bad first drafts. 

Throughout, she emphasizes taking things one step at a time and not getting overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

Published in 1994, Bird by Bird has inspired countless writers with its honest, humorous, and practical advice. Lamott offers wisdom on handling self-doubt and finding inspiration in everyday moments.

Anne Lamott’s Writing Style

After publishing four quirky Northern California novels between 1980 and 1989, Lamott sidestepped the fate of many authors suffering modest sales: beloved by few and destined to fade into literary oblivion. 

Instead, Lamott changed her genre and her life, becoming a successful memoirist and writing coach with her next books, Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird. Her voice is warm, conversational, and often hilarious. 

She writes with vulnerability, making readers feel they are chatting with a wise and witty friend. Lamott’s self-deprecating humor and relatable struggles resonate, offering aspiring writers comfort and encouragement.

Praise and Reception

Bird by Bird has become a perennial must-read for writers. The Los Angeles Times calls it a “warm, generous, and hilarious guide through the writer’s world and its treacherous swamps.” The book has sold over a million copies and hit the New York Times bestseller list. 

Memorable Stories from Bird by Bird

Lamott illustrates her points with personal anecdotes, memorable moments that not only entertain but also offer valuable insights.

The Story Behind the Book’s Title

As a young boy, Lamott’s brother was tasked with writing a report on birds, a project he procrastinated on for months. The night before it was due, he sat at the kitchen table in tears, surrounded by books and papers. 

Their father, also a writer, offered this sage advice: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” That wisdom became a touchstone for Lamott in her writing and in navigating life.

Anne Lamott’s Childhood and Family

Throughout Bird by Bird, Lamott shares poignant and humorous stories from her childhood and family life.  

One particularly moving story involves her older brother, who struggled with mental illness and addiction. Lamott writes about the pain of watching someone you love self-destruct and the helplessness and guilt that come with it. With such anecdotes, Lamott illustrates how life experience shapes a writer’s voice.

Writing Assignments and Struggles

From magazine articles to novels, Lamott offers a behind-the-scenes look at the often unglamorous reality of the writing life. 

She recounts a challenging piece she procrastinated on by cleaning her house from top to bottom. When she finally sat to write, she typed the same sentence over and over: “I am going to sit here until blood spurts from my forehead.” 

Such stories remind us that even successful authors face self-doubt.

Key Lessons and Advice from Bird by Bird

As a writer, you’ve no doubt struggled with the blank page, the blinking cursor, and writer’s fear. It’s enough to make even the most seasoned scribe want to throw in the towel. Lamott offers a treasure trove of inspiration.

1. Allow Yourself to Write Bad First Drafts

This is one of Lamott’s most famous pieces of advice, emphasizing the importance of getting words onto the page without judgment, knowing that revision will come later. That’s how to overcome both perfectionism and procrastination. 

As Lamott puts it, “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”

2. Take It One Step at a Time

Lamott applies her father’s bird by bird wisdom, encouraging writers to focus on short assignments and trust the process. 

And break big projects into manageable chunks to avoid getting stuck or feeling discouraged.

3. Find Your Voice

Lamott urges writers to be honest, to write about what you know, and to not try to sound like someone else. Stay true to yourself so you can create work that resonates.

As Lamott says, “Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it.”

4. Write About Your Childhood

Lamott encourages writers to explore their pasts, mining sensory details and emotions. Writing about your childhood can uncover universal truths and create powerful stories that make sense of your life.

5. Embrace Your Flaws

Lamott believes imperfections make us human and relatable, providing fodder for authentic writing.

When you become vulnerable, you connect with readers on a deeper level. Perfection is overrated; our flaws make us interesting.

6. Learn to Let Go

For writers, Lamott says this means not being overly attached to every word or idea, being open to feedback, and knowing when a piece is finished. 

She says, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

7. Focus on the Present

Lamott advises paying attention to the world around you, observing sensory details, and eavesdropping on conversations. Being present also means not getting too far ahead of yourself in the writing process. Take it one scene, one paragraph, one sentence at a time. Bird by bird.

8. Persevere Through Challenges

Writing is challenging, and Lamott acknowledges the inevitable obstacles and self-doubt. She encourages perseverance, reminding you that even successful authors face rejection and dry spells. 

She says, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”

How Bird by Bird Can Help You as an Aspiring Fiction Writer

So, you want to write the next great American novel? Or maybe just a short story that doesn’t make your writing group cringe? Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott can help you navigate those treacherous waters.

Developing Discipline and Consistency

Lamott’s advice on establishing writing routines and taking projects bird by bird can help you complete a novel or short story collection. Her emphasis on short assignments and trusting the process encourages momentum. 

Crafting Compelling Characters and Dialogue

Lamott offers valuable insight on creating believable, multi-dimensional characters in fiction. She advises writing about people you know and paying attention to quirks and contradictions. 

She also stresses writing dialogue that sounds natural and reveals character.

Handling Rejection and Criticism

Lamott offers strategies for developing a thick skin, seeking feedback from trusted readers, and not taking rejection personally.

Staying Motivated and Inspired

Bird by Bird is full of pep talks and reminders to help fiction writers stay motivated when the going gets tough. Lamott shares her sources of inspiration, like reading great literature and observing the world with a sense of wonder. 

She encourages writers to find joy in the process and celebrate small victories along the way.

Get Inspired to Write Today

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott speaks to the heart of the creative process. When you embrace your flaws, take things one step at a time, and stay true to your voice, you not only become a better writer but also live a more authentic, fulfilling life.

Ready to write a book? Online creative writing courses and writing tools can help. 

Become an author today!