Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott


Well-known author Anne Lamott summarizes the advice she gives her writing students, from encouraging them to let themselves write crummy first drafts to advocating for the use of short assignments to deal with writer's block, from promoting the value of writing groups to counseling the students on avoiding libel charges.

The book is largely reflective of Lamott's own writing experience (obviously) and is interlaced with her special brand of neurosis, hyperbole, over-reaction, jealousy, and drama.  While there is some practical advice, the real value of the book is likely the reader's identification with Lamott's fears and emotions.  Writers are, I suspect, a fairly neurotic bunch, and there is tremendous comfort to be found in reading a book like this and discovering that you are not the only one.  Moreover, someone who feels just as bereft after rejection, someone whose jealousy toward other writers borders on malevolence--someone like that was able to overcome the fear and the distraction and the insecurity and write.  And even be published.  Lamott essentially gives her readers permission to feel rejected when they are, well, rejected, to be discouraged, to be despondent, even.  She just encourages them not to stay there.

Many of Lamott's suggestions echo those made by other authors in other books (Stephen King's On Writing comes to mind)--that is, you simply must write.  Every day.  And read a lot.  This appears to be near-universal advice.  King's book is better, I think, but then King's is more of a direct (and sequential) memoir than Lamott's, for all her emotional transparency.

Lamott is an excellent writer, and she has a gift for creative and evocative phrases.  She is able to relate stories of emotional upheaval with humor and a certain amount of self-awareness.  She is a self-focused drama queen, to be sure, but she knows it.  I find her style amusing and even charming at times--the absurdity of her thoughts and reactions helps me identify the irrationality of my own neuroses (and allows me to occasionally comfort myself with the reminder that at least I'm not that crazy . . . yet). To those inclined to emotional privacy, however, this honesty may seem almost like exhibitionism.

At the end of the day, this is not a how-to book, though it does offer several helpful suggestions.  Still, the book is an easy and enjoyable read, and fairly encouraging to those interested in writing--though Lamott is quick to disabuse them of the notion that publication is the end-all be-all that aspiring writers want it to be.  For Lamott, writing is its own reward, and anyone who wants to write should be encouraged to do so.

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