Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

caterina_x's review

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3.5 stars

I have the suspicion that if I'd read this book when I was younger, I'd have rated it higher. I'd have been gushing probably. Now, however, after having read a dozen other writing books in the past, I found this one somewhat less informative than others (or perhaps it was because the info is now familiar) as well as less inspiring than others (ie Writing Down the Bones is a book that I found hugely inspiring).

Still, it's a worthwhile read. It is funny (very funny) and easy to read, it offers some helpful suggestions and it covers a wide range of topics for an aspiring writer including publication, libel etc. On the minus side, there were no writing exercises - which probably isn't really a minus, it's just that I was expecting some. What won me most in this book was the personality of the author coming through. The humour and sarcasm made me think that this would be a writer I'd enjoy hanging out with. Not to mention that it opened my eyes to something I had been blind to, personally: I enjoy writing for writing's sake. Thinking/worrying about publications had obscured the real reason I write. So that was a profound realisation that I got from the book, to which I'm grateful.

All in all, a cool, funny book about writing that is a pleasure to read.

ergriffin's review

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A classic book on writing that every writer--especially those struggling toward publication--should read. Lamott's advice is delivered firmly but warmly. If I were religiously inclined, I'd say this book was divinely inspired, she was so spot on not only in how writing is done, but how it makes us feel. This simple book could easily have supplemented an entire year of my undergraduate education, and it cost less than fifteen dollars. If you want to write, please read this.

Popsugar reading challenge 2020: A book with a bird on the cover.

everemmareads's review against another edition

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funny informative inspiring reflective slow-paced


nchinnici's review against another edition

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informative inspiring reflective medium-paced


valeniricibar's review

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Some good advice but a lot of unfortunate examples and word choices that haven't aged well. I think this book will probably be most helpful to those who are hesitating to start writing or are leaning towards giving up.

dan1066's review

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[My students] stare at me like the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…Finally someone will raise his or her hand. “Can you send your manuscripts directly to a publisher, or do you really need an agent?”

After a moment or so, I say, You really need an agent… Most of them nod. This is why they are here: they love to read, they love good writing, they want to do it, too. But a few of the students are still looking at me with a sense of betrayal or hopelessness, as if they are thinking of hanging themselves. Too late for a refund, I tell them cheerfully, but I have something even better…

Truth is, Lamott doesn’t offer “something even better.” She does not have the patience or empathy necessary to teach. She’s like a piano teacher who rolls her eyes after a novice student plays one or two measures, pushes the student off the bench to show “how it’s done.” As the student slowly gets up rubbing their elbow, she plays and talks about how it’s agony to practice, how it’s agony to get gigs, how all these famous musicians talk to her about her gigs and talent and how it’s not enough. It eventually dawns on the student she’s not going to teach anything. You’re just what she wanted: a paying audience to shut up and enjoy her stories. She believes she is so clever when, in fact, she’s cruel. You’ll leave the lesson having wasted your money and having your dreams ridiculed.

Lamott continually bemoans how miserable the writing process is, how cut-throat. Yet, she had access to a literary agent and a patient teacher (her father) at her start. Publication was easy for her. In fact, her descriptions of her “struggles” is like a wealthy person lounging by their luxurious pool talking to their servant: “Oh, you don’t want wealth, Julio, the stress of having so much money. You want to live life day by day, enjoy a good sunrise and sunset. I saw one on my annual trip to Ibiza, stunning. But the hotel staff were so…you know, provincial. One actually hooked the keys to my Benz in the wrong spot. When this dented Volkswagon drove up, I was like, ‘Uh, that’s not mine.’”

Lamott complains about her students—her favorite adjective for them is “mewling.” She notes a group which attended her course still meet weekly to discuss their writing: “All four of them are excellent writers, but only one of them has been published at all, and that was just one article. But you know what? They love each other.” Lamott notes: “Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer.” Then she talks about herself, her worries, her “problems,” which, Dear Budding Writer, are just like yours…

Six or seven years ago I was asked to write an article on the Special Olympics.

I had a brainstorm: I would mail the third section off, borrow the money to fly to New York, and spend a week there, doing the line editing of the book with my editor and, at the same time, getting away from this man I was breaking up with. Also, I could collect the last third of the advance that Viking owed me and do a little retail therapy in New York City.

Last summer I got a call from a producer in New York who wanted me to fly east two days later, stay in town overnight, do her TV talk show, and fly home.

Whenever I’m giving a lecture at a writing conference and happen to mention the benefits of finding someone to read your drafts, at least one older established writer comes up to me and says that he or she would never in a million years show his or her work to another person before it was done.

One of the best writers I know has a wife…

Two other writers I know use each other.

A magazine editor recently asked me to write an essay about being a lifelong Giants fan, which I have been, but the anxiety about publication made my mind go suddenly blank.

Of course, not everyone loved my book. There were some terrible reviews…”Here’s your review from Santa Barbara,” my editor wrote on a note enclosed with it, “where people never die.”

So I started typing up the journal entries and sending them off to my agent.

Brice died that May. A month or so later I had the opportunity to write a three-minute essay for a radio show on anything I wanted, and I asked Brice’s parents if it would feel like an invasion of privacy if I wrote about their son.

And get this: Lamott gives the text of her radio essay and it’s about bringing her baby to see the body of dead baby Brice and recording his profound reaction: “He’s a good baby.” Afterwards, they go bowling. I shit you not.

So why so many five stars for this trash? I don’t know. She told us at the very beginning students wouldn’t get a refund and some felt like hanging themselves—but she’s doesn’t understand why the shiny examples drawn from her writer’s life coupled with her zany, quirky humor doesn’t dazzle and enlighten. She’s not teaching anything—she’s using the instruction process as a means to regale a captive audience about herself with a few sprinklings of clichés and pithy slogans. She denigrates her friends, the special ed population, the French, people from the south, the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, her students. Notice all her great, useful quotes start with “a friend told me” or “a black lady told me” or “my fat gay priest friend told me” or “a really great writer told me.” Sometimes she names her friends and priests, sometimes she doesn’t. The upshot is she’s pilfering great quotes or images, often without giving the authors credit. Towards the middle of her “lesson,” you begin to wonder why you can’t name a single novel she has written, can’t recall a single book she’s noted for other than Bird by Bird. She’s a hack, that’s why. She needs the money; more importantly, she needs the audience.

Now, before I sign off, I’ll save you the cost of this book by revealing Lamott’s recipe for literary success:

(1) Have a father who is a published writer.

(2) Have father die of cancer. Write about father dying of cancer and send it to father’s literary agent.

(3) Have a friend die of cancer. Write about friend dying of cancer and fill the niche of “funny books about cancer.”

(4) Don’t expect to be published and don’t entreat Lamott to read your shitty stories. Find someone else and accept the fact you will likely wallow in mediocrity but at least you’ll avoid all the stress of being a published writer like Lamott.

That’s it. There’s no “how to.” Each chapter starts with a problem a burgeoning writing likely faces, but each chapter ends with a long anecdote about what a wonderful, zany life Lamott has as a writer. She’s a waste of time.

vivianportom's review

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Writing reviews, even if for 4 other people to read, is such important business. Sometimes I forget. This was the best book about writing I've read so far. Not just regarding advice, and I took a lot to heart, but also quality of prose. I wish I had listened to an audiobook of it. Anne's writing is quite beautiful and it never felt like I was being taught something, although I was to the point of taking notes. Maybe I'll reread it one day when I lose my way and need some stirring in the right direction.

yellow_star's review against another edition

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hopeful informative relaxing slow-paced


This is maybe THE classic book on writing novels in the US at least, but it's not the most useful book for me. At the end of the book I'm now reconsidering the wisdom of learning about writing novels from someone who barely wrote a handful of them. It's also a bit of a memoir of the writer's life, which is a pretty boring way to get writing examples unless you enjoy reading memoirs.

I think this is for people who want to write, but are too scared to ever get past writing chapter one of their first book. If you have courage in your writing, though, you can understand everything you need to from the front flap describing that the title is based on the author's childhood wisdom to write a seemingly impossible long school report on birds "bird by bird". Then for a bit more info read the table of contents- just that had enough info for me. 

If you really want to read the whole thing though skip the introduction or you'll approach writing as something done between bursts of alcoholism and depression even though in real life that will throttle your output and creativity as well as quality of life. The rest of the book also shows a totally outdated approach to writing as well, if you become an author you'd be completely broke if you took an incredibly long three years to write each new book. 

djrmelvin's review

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This is my writing bible. When I am lost and ready to give up, this is the book that reminds that lost is okay and giving up was never really an option. There's good nuts and bold advice about writing in here, mixed in with a lot of "you're not the first person to feel this way and you won't be the last". This is the book of reassurance and compassion that every writer needs to get through those dark days...weeks...and, let's admit it - months.

niall_o_reilly's review

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This is probably one of the top 5 most well received books on writing and I feel kind of harsh giving it 3 stars. So I think I'll start off with the cons so I can finish on the pros.

One of the things that immediately jumps out at me is that Lamott has a tendency to be a bit arrogant. All throughout the book it felt like she was saying that her way was the one true way to write. Many ideas such as index cards and her religious devotion were simply not ideas I could get behind. The book is often described as hilarious but other than a good chuckle when, near the start of the book, Lamott finds out her father writes porn, I rarely found myself smiling.

Some of this I suppose COULD be down to the fact that the book was published in 1994 and that there were simply some out-dated references that just flew over my head. For example I've never heard of the 'joke' about the woman mauled by a gorilla...

Lamott also mentions that on the release day of her book, she basically did nothing but drink and wait for her phone to ring. I don't know many authors that literally just laze around on release day. Although, this is certainly a case that social media simply wasn't a thing for Lamott and authors back then were probably not expected to do any sort of marketing.

That being said, there IS a LOT of good writing advice in the book. It wouldn't be so popular if there wasn't. And despite what I said about Lamotts one way of writing, she does implore the reader to not just try writing like (Insert any famous author here) and instead try to find their own voice. Lamotts outlook on writing and the alcoholic/binge eating depression she went through while writing may have been dark, but it's an honest breath of fresh air.

Like this entire review, the end of the book starts to feel drawn out and rambly, and I'll admit I was just skimming the final 5-10 pages, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that overall this book is filled with good writing/life advice.