reading: Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird has been out for awhile – at least, she describes mailing a manuscript to her agent, in the mail, all printed out, which seems cumbersome. I imagine most agents and editors use email and track changes in Word now? But I’ve just gotten around to reading the book. She covers how to be a writer and how to be a human simultaneously and with wonderful humor.

Characters, not plot

“Find out what each character cares about most in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake.” Plot is driven by what is at stake. When I learned to write features in a sportswriting class, my professor would continually tell us, raise the stakes. That is where the meaning of the story is, and it is what keeps the reader turning pages. But Anne tells us to start with the characters – and I love how she describes the process, sort of sitting there daydreaming about your characters, like, what will Wanda do next? Getting into their heads and turning them into complex beings makes the story authentic. It’s also a good self-test, I found. What do I care about most in the world? Because, that’s what informs what I should do next.


Being a writer means having writer friends. And writing is cyclical, you’re not always publishing, for months you’re just writing, and then getting edited and so on. Having to hear about others’ success while you’re down is difficult. And Anne describes in detail how it can get in your head. I think this can happen in any field, and social media makes it worse. I’ll go on Twitter to see people posting their wonderful ideas and deals, and start to think, he is smarter than me, creative and has the ability to execute on ideas, looks great in a sweater and probably teaches better yoga than me, too! See how foolish this is – I would hope someone’s passions wouldn’t mirror mine so perfectly and also outperform me on each one. But it seems that way sometimes.

It’s not about getting published

Anne teaches writing classes and students aren’t there for fun – they want to be published. But do they? Writing to get published is like a corporation focusing only on shareholder value – your writing will be worse. And for all the people who love to write – most are not very good. So we fight the good fight when we learn to write for a reason other than being published.

But what is it in us that convinces us that getting published is the achievement that makes us a “real” writer?

I think it’s just a big misunderstanding. Donald Miller once said that with his book Blue Like Jazz, a major bestseller, he felt like he put a message in a bottle and got a hundred billion messages back, like in the Police song “Message in a Bottle:

Walked out this morning
Don’t believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles
Washed up on a shore
Seems I’m not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways
Lookin’ for a home

I’ve talked before about why I write. Writing is personal, and publishing says to the writer, You are a legitimate craftsman *and* a legitimate human being. Who you are and what you think is meaningful. Thing is, this is true of every person. Blogging shows us that. If you put your heart on a page it can find people who recognize the same reality. Whether this same opportunity is available for full-length books, time will tell.