Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is full of fantastic writing craft tips, but the “life” instructions are unhelpful, and in many cases, toxic.
For years, I have heard the praises of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life sung by my fellow writers. Therefore, I will admit that I began reading the book with exceedingly high expectations. While this likely biased my reading of the book, even after a few weeks of reflection, I still have mixed feelings about it.
On the whole, Bird by Bird is packed with useful writing advice. Reading it felt like being back in my university creative writing classes, with an eccentric and slightly hair-brained professor. Most of the wisdom Lamott shares is evergreen and can be extremely helpful to writers. In fact, the piece of advice from which the book gleans its title, to take writing one small bit at a time (“bird by bird”) is incredibly helpful. Likewise, Lamott’s insistence that it is okay to write “shitty first drafts” is reassuring to writers and no doubt helps many get over their writer’s block.
Where Bird by Bird loses traction for me is in its advice on publishing, interacting with other writers, and living the writer lifestyle. I realize that the book was published in the mid-1990s, before the onset of professional independent publishing and the modern technological era. Therefore, I can forgive the obvious bias toward traditional publishing as the “only” form of publishing and the ultimate measure of a writer’s success.
However, what I cannot forgive is the way Lamott describes her relationships with other writers and her daily life as a writer. Lamott over-exaggerates the stereotype of writers as competitive and jealous, and if her references to mean-spirited daydreams and therapy are meant to be humorous, they fell on deaf ears here. Just because many writers are competitive and jealous does not mean that a writer needs to advocate this thinking (or encourage writers to stop being friends with another writer rather than work on their jealousy issues).
Likewise, Lamott relies heavily on the stereotype of the “suffering artist.” She describes her life as a writer as one filled with self-loathing, procrastination, and writer’s block. While it may be true that artistic professions are difficult, both creatively and financially, romanticizing the struggle only furthers these antiquated writing stereotypes and does not accurately reflect the experience of most writers.
If you are looking for time-tested writing tips and the reassurance that your writing, even if “shitty” at first is worthwhile, Bird by Bird will deliver. My advice is to soak up the craft tips and take the memoir-style musings on the writing life and how to interact with other writers with a dump trunk full of road salt.
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