Rating: B+/ I’ve been having a creative dry spell lately, ever since I finished a novella I was writing and became completely stumped over what to work on next. My mom encouraged me to read this book, a copy of which she had bought me a couple of years ago and which has spent ever since just kind of gathering dust with all my hundreds of other books on the shelves in my room. I hadn’t read a book all the way through in several months, lacking the concentration and patience, but I completed this short, sweet bit of autobiographical non-fiction by one of my mom’s favorite authors within three days without hardly trying. I found it an easy and leisurely read, and in the end, I was glad I took the time with it.
Bird by Bird is first and foremost a writing instruction book, but it contains a lot of information about Lamott’s life as well. While it is not a long book by any means, it gives the feeling of having covered a lot of ground by the time you reach the end. I found it especially helpful in that it discussed issues of perfectionism, motivational slumps, and writer’s block, all of which I have continual issues with while writing. Lamott has kind of a Woody Allen-esque sense of humor based on her own neurosis and anxiety, and while I could often relate to it, I sometimes found her a little forced too.
She seems like a highly interesting and intelligent person who I’m not sure I would get along with too well in real life. I’m not entirely sure why I get this vibe from her, but I enjoyed reading about her unique take on things, although I didn’t always agree with or fully understand them, and I would definitely read more of her books. I could particularly relate to a excerpt in the book about how she tended to be so neurotic that when she sent a manuscript to a friend or agent and they didn’t respond within a few hours she became fatalistically convinced that they had already read the book she wrote and hated it so much that they were simultaneously laughing their asses off at her behind her back and hadn’t returned her messages because they had nothing nice to say about her or her writing.
I’m exactly the same way and would send it to a friend (I haven’t gotten as far as an agent yet) who would tell me they’d read my novella ‘soon’ and then leave it to sit without getting in touch with me for a few days. My mind almost immediately begins to spin with images of my friend reading a couple of chapters of my book and throwing it down in disgust (the ‘throwing’ of the manuscript is strictly figurative in my case, since I sent it to them in a word document,) either because (a the writing is so dreadfully bad, or (b the story itself is extremely dark and potentially offensive to all kinds of people.
I have my friends and acquaintance who I am not worried about offending (I have a good friend who wrote and self-published a forty-page novella about a teenager on a murder and necrophilia spree; simply put, nothing I write is going to wound his sensitivities) and others I am quite sure will never talk to me again the minute they read the last page. I warn people who are quite easily triggered and offended not to bother. But initially when I sent out my novella to people I knew I’d email them approximately 48 hours later, anxiously asking if they had read it and if so, were they still interested in associating with me? And did it suck? And did they totally hate it?
I know that’s a bit tangential, but the point is that Lamott hit the nail on the head, though from what I know of her other books, she is not exactly in the same boat as me (in the words, I don’t think that any of her books predominately feature the character of the murderous mentally deficient son of a meth whore, like yours truly, and I don’t think her readers were as likely to be shocked/offended/sickened as they would with my project.) She doesn’t write those kind of books, they seem to be more of quirky domestic dramas, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Of course, I suffer the same insecurities as her or any other writer, i.e. that the beta reader will find the manuscript just plain bad, of the torturous, terribly written variety. No offense necessary. Why is it that creative people seem to be neurotics, depressive, addicted, or just plain off their tit? I’ve been a worrier all my life, as well as going into funks that seem to last for interminable amounts of time, and my extreme anxiety and self-loathing seems to make me fit right in with the writers of the world. Hey, nobody said writers had to be happy.
A lot of what Lamott said felt familiar on some level, but she also had a funny and weirdly comforting way of putting her writing process but also her fears and vulnerabilities on display. She also added an awful lot of literary and movie references and quotes from writers and philosophers that added flavor and extra perspective to the experience. it never felt revelatory, but it was always informative and fun to read.
And while I said before that some of her humor felt forced at times (like she was trying a bit too hard to be funny) I found myself laughing out loud at others. Bird by Bird is not a hard book to read, and I imagine it would be invaluable to other writers such as myself, particularly those who can write excellent prose upon occasion but have a lot of trouble staying on track and getting ideas.
This is the first book I’ve read that’s actually about writing; my mom also recommended On Writing by Stephen King and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg for me to read, but I haven’t gotten the chance yet. I don’t know if Bird by Bird has helped me become a better writer yet, but even if it doesn’t help me at all in the long run, at least it is something whose anecdotes I can laugh at and above all, relate to. I’d imagine most other aspiring writers will feel much the same way, so, without further ado, I recommend this book for people who want to write or do write, but maybe are in a slump or, like the rest of us, still have things to learn.