Book Review: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

I occasionally like to read books about writing, to see what other writers have to say about it.  I came across this book at a Seattle Friends of the Library book sale.  It was almost free so, since I had heard of it, I thought I’d give it a try.  It was first published in 1994, which makes it over twenty years old.  That’s not important, except that you should take what it says about publishing with a grain of salt, as this was before digital publishing and the self-publishing revolution.  No matter.  The book doesn’t go into publishing much, not even the rudiments.  It is taken from Lamott’s writing classes for beginning writers and deals with much more basic topics.

I can’t really call myself a beginning writer anymore by any stretch of the imagination, with about twenty books and many short stories published, but I still found some of her advice readable and enjoyable.

Before I go on, though, I need to give a bit of advice myself on the reading of books on writing.  Every writer’s journey is different.  If you read books about the writing process and rules of writing by other writers, always keep in mind that in the pursuit of your own voice and your own calling you should ignore any advice that you disagree with.  There are no absolutes in the writing game.  It is subjective.  It is a matter of ripping your heart open and communicating what you find there, and it is a different experience for everyone.

That said, I find some of Lamott’s advice to be useful, and some not so much.  She is opinionated and entertaining, though a bit too dogmatic sometimes.  I sometimes found her writing style, especially her flippancy, exaggeration, and self-denigration, annoying.  In one section she talks about writing shitty first drafts which you can then revise again and again until you whip them into shape.  That’s how some writers write, but not all.  I prefer to write good first drafts and, though I do go over my work several times afterwards, I generally make very few changes.  There are exceptions to be sure.

I am concerned about stories I send off to publishers, but I cannot overly fret about my creations that I send off to market as Lamott describes that she does; there are too many of them.  Right now, besides all the digital stories I have available for purchase at various online venues, I also have about twenty short stories and novelettes making the rounds of magazines and anthologies.  If I wasted time fretting over editors’ reactions I’d never get anything else done.  Instead, I send them off and start on the next ones.  If they come back rejected, I find another suitable market and send them out again.  If they get accepted, paid for, and published, well and good; otherwise I format them, create a cover, and self-publish them.  Life is too short for the anxiety of placing my well-being in an editor’s hands.  The best thing is to do the work, send it off or upload it, and move on.

As I said, the advice in this book is for beginning writers.  Some of it is sound, some of it not.  For the best advice on the nuts and bolts of short story writing, though, pick up a copy of “Creating Short Fiction” by Damon Knight.  So far I have not found a better guide to the practical aspects of short story composition.  It’s even older than Lamott’s book, but Knight’s advice is timeless.

I don’t know if I would recommend this book or not, as there are definitely better books about writing on the market.  One of my other favorites is “On Writing” by Stephen King.  I don’t agree with all of his advice either, but he sure is entertaining, and blends the writing advice with some fascinating memoirs.  I suppose “Bird by Bird” may be a good read for writers who are just starting out, as long as they realize that some of the advice is dated and that they should ignore anything that doesn’t apply to them and feel free to break any so-called rules they want to break.

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