Book Review: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Some years ago, not long after I moved to Illinois from Kentucky, I was being interviewed for a job. When the interviewer asked me, what would I do with my time if having to earn a living wasn’t an issue, one of those off the wall questions designed to reveal some quirks of personality, I told him that I would be a writer. He sipped his drink. There was a long silence. And he ended the interview. That’s generally been the response I’ve always received to that answer. Silence and incredulity.
Writing never seems like a real profession to anyone, unless you’ve actually been paid for something you’ve written, most of the time not even then. Sometimes I do get asked the follow up question, why do I want to be a writer, and my answer, without fail is, “I will not be silenced again.” Writers are very angry people. When you sit down to write you’re basically shouting to the world, “Listen to me you sons of bitches I have something to say!”
Flannery O’Connor once said that anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. I think she was mostly right.
When I was younger I accepted being alone quite a bit and so writing ended up becoming a way for me to prove that I existed. “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life.” As Lamott says. But writing also provided me with the opportunity to be taken seriously when there was no real cause for anyone to do so.
I’m not a “real writer” myself, but I do spend quit a bit of time writing. I first started writing when I was probably around seven or eight. I was very shy then but loved reading and writing above everything else. I remember in the first grade I even went dressed as a writer for career day. What a writer was supposed to look like I had no idea, but for me it consisted of wearing a sweater vest, glasses, slacks, and penny loafers. I even had my grandfather’s old tobacco pipe I carried with me in order to complement the ensemble. I must have looked more like a college professor because that’s what everyone kept calling me. But no, I was a writer dammit! Don’t you see the sweater vest? I was also in the habit of writing and illustrating my own novels and would bind them with what seemed like the cheapest staples you could possibly buy and distribute them to the family for their enjoyment, whether they did or not is still up in the air. The stories typically revolved around the same characters, my dog was always the main protagonist followed by a revolving cast of characters consisting of other neighborhood pets, and they would all come together to solve some mystery that seemed to be plaguing their small community of misfits. I was a big fan of James Howe at the time so I ended up basing most of my stories on his. I was very serious about the whole endeavor and thought about the stories and characters quit a bit.
It has occurred to me that maybe the problem with saying you want to be a writer is that you’re really talking about something else. Maybe what you mean is that you want to be a successful writer or a published writer, but those are two very different things, to write and to write something that’s meant to be read, are two very different forms of writing and as Lamott cautions, "Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer." Adding, “Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems.”
J. G. Ballard in an interview once said, “Don’t regard yourself as being anyone special, as having any right to even a modest financial success, because you’re a writer. Also, I’d warn anyone beginning his career, that the days when a writer could have a career, are probably over. I think it’s going to be more and more difficult for the novelist and short story writer to make a living of any kind over the next 20 years.” Adding that one should be, “very wary about committing yourself entirely to being a writer. I think the writer’s role is very much in decline, at least for the time being.”
So why in the hell would anyone want to be a writer? I think it’s because of what Chinua Achebe once said about the power and importance of writing, “If you look at the world in terms of storytelling, you have, first of all, the man who agitates, the man who drums up the people — I call him the drummer. Then you have the warrior, who goes forward an fights. But you also have the storyteller who recounts the event — and this is one who survives, who outlives all the others. It is the storyteller, in fact, who makes us what we are, who creates history. The storyteller creates the memory that survivors must have — otherwise surviving would have no meaning… This is very, very important… Memory is necessary if surviving is going to be more than just a technical thing.”
Lamott says that, “We are born astride the grave and this planet can feel as cold and uninhabitable as the moon.” So if writing and reading can lessen our anxieties then thats reason enough to pursue them.
One main draw back to Lamott’s book however, is that it’s more of a memoir than an instructional guide and she doesn’t really offer any advice on revision, which is one of the most important skills a working writer could ever master. Good writing evolves, through revision, and is not a process of sudden, inspired, irrevocable statements but one of incremental and iterative explorations. And I actually find this notion kind of exciting, this notion that we find out what we think by trying, however ineptly at first, to write it.
I am first and foremost a reader and one of the principal reasons for becoming a writer, that I’ve come across, is that it helps you to become a better reader, which is the real payoff and Lamott’s book is well worth a read. It’s actually well worth several reads.