Bird by Bird

Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Personal musings on the life of the writer. Lamott is primarily a novelist, but I find her writing advice to be just as relevant to nonfiction. As with the best books on writing, she expertly dispels any notion of romance.

Reading notes


Lamott explains why publication is not the reward a writer should seek; writing is:

I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. The thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

Lamott, Bird by Bird, page xxvi

This is just as true now—when publication means nothing more than hitting publish and then awaiting the pageviews. Write because it matters, because you learn from it, because you have things to say. Concern yourself with whether or not anyone cares only after the day’s writing is done.

Make a mess

This has been said before, but worth the reminder when you find yourself fiddling with a sentence for half an hour, trying to get the rhythm just right, even though you don’t yet know what the hell it is you’re trying to say:

Your day’s work might turn out to have been a mess. So what? Vonnegut said “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” So go ahead and make big scratches and mistakes. Use up lots of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here—and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

Lamott, Bird by Bird, page 32

You could replace “writing” with “designing” and this would be just as true.


It’s not so much writer’s block as writer’s gap:

We have all been there, and it feels like end of the world. It’s like a little chickadee being hit by an H-bomb. Here’s the thing, though, I no longer think of it as block. I think that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door.

The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.

Lamott, Bird by Bird, page 177

Meaning, you don’t have anything to say. To which you have only two responses: start writing about anything, and see if something emerges. Or get away from your desk and do something else that will fill you up.

Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat

Ethan Marcotte writes about the need for shitty first drafts, referencing Anne Lamott’s excellent Bird by Bird. Which reminded me of this passage from another great (and in some ways very different) book on writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing:

Your job as a writer is making sentences.
Your other jobs include fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.
If this is the case—making, fixing, killing, arranging—how can your writing possibly flow?
It can’t.

Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer.

A writer may write painstakingly.
Assembling the work slowly, like a mosaic,
Fitting and refitting sentences and paragraphs over the years.
And yet to the reader the writing may seem to flow.

The reader’s experience with your prose has nothing to do with how hard or easy it was for you to make.
You’re not writing for the reader in the mirror whose psychological state reflects your own.
You have only your own working world to consider.
The reader reads in another world entirely.

So why not give up on the idea of “flow” and accept the basic truth about writing?

It’s hard work, and it’s been hard work for everyone all along.
There’s good reason to believe this, apart from the fact that it’s true.
If you think that writing—the act of composition—should flow, and it doesn’t, what are you likely to feel?
Obstructed, defeated, inadequate, blocked, perhaps even stupid.
The idea of writer’s block, in its ordinary sense,
Exists largely because of the notion that writing should flow.

But if you accept that writing is hard work,
And that’s what it feels like when you’re writing,
Then everything is as it should be.
Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat.
It’s a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.

Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, page 67

As with a lot of writing about writing, I think this advice is just as applicable to other creative pursuits. It also neatly explicates a related truth: that the stories we tell ourselves about our work can make the difference between whether we see that work as useful or not, as successful or not. The difference is all in your mind, but that’s often the difference that matters the most.