Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Amazon affiliate link) offers a different look at writing than you are likely to see in other writing books. It does so with passion, zeal, and above all else a sense of clarity and purpose which combine make it refreshing.
I’ve read or listened to quite a few books on writing recently, like John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which I also highly recommend (my review), but Lamott takes an approach that is conversational and cordial, making the reader (or listener) a co-conspirator with her in the ups and downs of life as a writer.
Two of the most challenging parts of writing are finding a spark, figuring out what you want to write, and then figuring out how to transfer it to paper. Lamott focuses on these two subjects almost to the exclusion of everything else, but she does so with such depth and from so many different angles that she never repeats herself and covers a good portion of everything else that you would want to know as a writer on the side.
Lamott captures the spirit of writing without feeling preachy or over-romantic. I think of Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (my review) as an example of a book that is sentimental rather than practical, basically a collection of calls to action and motivational speaking rather than an example of what writers are likely to encounter. Lamott, on the other hand, takes the experiences from her own personal perspective, giving the reader emotional attachment and lending them part of her drive.
Lamott is bitingly sarcastic and incredibly funny. She is transparent about her personal crises, leading to a book that shows both the bigger picture of the publication process and the smaller moments that make up the triumphs and ordeals of the writing process; from the feel of getting galley copies in the mail to the shared anxiety of calling another writer on the day of publication to realize that neither she nor he achieved the runaway success that they had dreamed of.
I wouldn’t suggest this book to younger readers due to some of the language and content in it, but it is still one that I would recommend to novice writers because Lamott never does anything that might come across as intimidating or elitist (at least, not without lampshading it in a devilish self-aware fashion). You get a feel for her personality and character and how her life has motivated her to write:
“I try to write the books that I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives… and that can make me laugh… Books, for me, are medicine.”
I think this is a meaningful outlook, and it’s worth noting that unlike some authors Lamott leaves it to the writer whether they want to have any overarching message or ideas. If all you have to say is a small truth that you learned from something that happened to you, Lamott gives as much encouragement as you would expect if you were to say that you had figured out the way to fix the universe. She also avoids giving too much of a dogma. A large part of her advice is to figure out methods that work for the individual writer, as a more airy and vapid individual or someone who wishes to sabotage their potential rivals might, but she actually gives enough advice and framework to make it possible to follow that path.
I went into this book with no knowledge of Lamott or her work, and left feeling like she had given me an intimate look into both her writing process and her advice for writers. Comparing it to something like Stephen King’s On Writing, which is definitely more autobiographical and takes longer to get into the craft side of things, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which is heavily predominated by craft.
I’d recommend Bird by Bird without reservation. It’s like having an intimate conversation with a great writer, and even barring an interest in writing it’s funny enough to be worth reading. That it has surprisingly practical and down-to-earth writing moments tucked underneath every joke and anecdote is a triumph that makes it sublime.