Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I've forgotten how this book appeared on my radar, but I think it was on someone's list of most influential books ever. I am more ambivalent.

The book's subtitle is "Some Instructions on Writing and Life", and honestly I was hoping for more of the latter. Unfortunately it was more of the former, specifically how to write fiction, which is interesting in theory, but is not something that is very high on my current list of things I would like to spend my time doing.

In general, the author has some good tips for the fledgeling writer. These are pretty intuitive, but do serve as good reminders:

  • Start with "shitty first drafts", revise later.
  • Write in small chunks as inspiration comes, as if looking through a tiny picture frame.
  • Be wasteful with paper: don't worry about throwing out large chunks of what you write.
  • Carry a notebook or index cards everywhere you go for when inspiration strikes!

More strategic and insightful:

  • Observe the world and people for who they really are. Cultivate a sense of "compassionate detachment" towards your characters.
  • Treat characters as if they have a mind of their own: “you probably won’t know your characters until weeks or months after you’ve started working with them. [...] Stay open to them. [...] Listen.”

The book evoked a range of reactions in me. In the spirit of an open faced compliment sandwich, I will start with the bad. A lot of Lamott's tips are overly prescriptive, like that there is no need for hopeless novels, and no room for an unreliable or unlikable narrator. I wonder how she and Dostoyevsky would get along...

The author's tone is very California trustifarian. Attempts at black humor are therefore diluted into a somewhat weaker grey humor. I think it makes the book more accessible to a wider audience, but cheapened it in my eyes. In a related vein, Lamott's progressive leftiness really shines through. There's this hand wringing about western society being so broken and terrible. In a sense, this is reassuring. The "we're in the dark ages and the president is Stalin" sentiment is not a 2016 phenomenon, but had already emerged in 1994 when the book was written.

On the flip side, I must say that a good chunk of the book put a smile on my face. That chapter on Calling Around was really vivid and funny and heartwarming. And she does produce some great visual metaphors, like these:

  • “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
  • Sometimes it feels... "as if writing a novel is like trying to level Mount McKinley with a dentist's drill."

Also, I liked her stoic tendency.

"My deepest belief is that to live as if we're dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and to not sweat the small things."

"I heard a tape once in which an actor talked about finding God in the modern world and how, left to our own decides, we seek instead all the worldly things -- possessions, money, looks, and power -- because we think they will bring us fulfillment. But this turns out to be a joke because they are just props, and when we check out of this life, we have to give them all back to the great propmaster in the sky. "They're just on loan," he said,"they're not ours."