I started the new year with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird because reading about the creation of art never fails to conjure a sort of can-do/must-do lust not completely unlike that created when reading erotica. Others describe the pleasure of process (Lamott offers great images of crawling over the page) and there’s a hum in every part of me. I must have it.
In it, I found perfect inspiration. After a pretty dry autumn (writing-wise), I’m finishing up the seventeen-thousandth revisions on But For the Streetlamps and the Moon and All the Stars. This time, however, the edits are at the request of a literary agent. Which is really exciting, and super terrifying. It’s gratifying to know someone read my book and saw enough promise in it to request revision. But when editing something that feels so close to ‘done,’ there’s also a sense that whatever you pick up is fragile, and might fall apart right in your hands. I alter a sentence and it creates a plot hole. I have too much fun, and ten pages in I realize I’m not revising but writing a new book altogether. But the edits requested do have a lot of merit; they’re making the book much stronger and I just have to keep on, as Anne would say, “Bird by Bird.”
The title of this book refers to Anne Lamott’s lesson in “short assignments.” She extends a hand to writers in this way, pulling us up out of the overwhelming depths of where-to-begin, and says, just write a paragraph: “a one-inch picture, one small scene, one memory, one exchange.” She shares the story of her brother as a child, near tears after leaving a large homework assignment to the last minute. He is meant to create a sort of encyclopedia of birds, and is drowning in the information gathered. “We’ll take it bird by bird, buddy,” their father tells him. Nothing is more paralytic that working with the belief that you must conjure a masterpiece from thin air. But a paragraph’s easy. Who can’t start there? Just write one, and then a next one, and so forth.
But the book is much more than writing advice. Like Stephen King’s On Writing, Bird by Bird is also a collection of autobiographical anecdotes about Lamott’s childhood and friendships, career, sobriety, and (unlike On Writing) faith and motherhood. It is peppered with the poetry and words of other experts, and gives salve on the topics of failure, writer’s block, criticism, perfectionism, jealousy. When people ask me how I keep inspired, I always suggest they read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic or King’s book, as mentioned above. But Bird by Bird tops my recommendation list now. There is nothing in this book that didn’t push me forward (and hold my hand) in my scary revision task, or even just in life itself.
With about a week’s worth of alterations left, I will re-read it a second time.
With many more weeks of life left (fingers crossed), I will re-read it many times more.
Happy Sunday, Everyone!