Writerly Sagacity with Wit

Anne Lamott is one very wise, very funny writer. The 25th anniversary edition of her seminal book, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, is comedic, philosophical and a very entertaining read. That endorsement holds true for all manner of readers, whether you are a writer or simply someone who writes, a professional or a student or an aspiring author. Or simply someone who caught her TED talk and would like to hear more.

Lamott writes novels and non-fiction. Her voice is unmistakable, clear and carrying an honesty and immediacy that catches you by the lapels. She is in your face and in your head, and she does it without polemics or a loud voice. Instead, Lamott writes with the great strength that comes from awareness and openness with one’s vulnerability. At first blush you might think it self-deprecating, but much more is taking place. Her prose is extraordinarily human in the best sense of the word. She writes to learn, to know herself and others, and to make sense of the human condition.

Bird By Bird captures that well, giving outlines and observations to what can be an overwhelming task: writing. The title comes from a personal anecdote. Lamott’s brother was assigned a school report on birds, a topic he found too complex and confusing to capture on paper. He did not know how to begin. To address the problem he began with small steps, going bird by bird. The same approach works with writing, Lamott counsels. There is no finished book without many shitty first drafts. Her humor, warm and dark, gives the reader and aspiring writer the reassurance that their struggles may be special, but they are far from unique. Lamott teaches writing regularly and it’s apparent to see that she’d be an outstanding a coach and guide. She is one in this book

It’s easy to find a summary of Bird By Bird online. You can download powerpoints, watch youtube videos, and copy the notes. A documentary was made about her and the book. However, watching and shortcuts in so many ways might bypass a very important point. Underlying Lamott’s work is a recognition that writing is hard work. One of the things that makes it so valuable is the difficulty inherent in writing.. It requires engagement, imagination, and all the comes from working through frustration and despair. You just can’t get all that with notes. If you want to learn from Lamott and to become a better writer, invest the time and energy in the process. Give Bird By Bird time and your undivided attention. I’d wager that Anne Lamott is well worth it.

David Potash

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