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Book:  Bird by Bird

Author:  Anne Lamott

Purchase:  Print | eBook | Audiobook

Citation:  Lamott, A. (1995). Bird by bird : some instructions on writing and life. New York: Anchor Books.

Key Takeaways and Big Ideas:

Focus on completing small assignments each day. Focus on just one small part of your writing you can complete in one sitting. Do not get overwhelmed with all of the other things you need to write to complete the entire book. This is all you have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do is write that one paragraph. We just need to finish this one short assignment. (pg. 16)

Every author has crappy first drafts. All good writers have them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But not one writer writes elegant first drafts. When you are struggling to write, just get ideas down on paper, because there will be something in those crazy pages that you write that works that you will never have gotten to if you hadn't written. There may be something in the very last line of the sixth page that you love. (pg. 20)

My reviews always took two days to write. On the first day I'd sit down at my desk with my notes and try to write. Even after I'd been doing this for years panic would set in. I'd try to write a lead but instead I'd write a couple of dreadful sentences. It's over, I'd think. I'm not going to get the magic to work this time. I'm ruined. I'm through. To get over things, I'd start writing without reigning myself in. It was almost just typing, making my fingers move. The next day I'd take out everything I possibly could, find a new lead somewhere, figure out a great place to end, and then write the second draft. It always turned out fine. I'd go over it one more time and mail it in. (pg. 22)

If you continue to write, you are going to deal with jealousy because some wonderful successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, undeserving writers you know. This is going to happen because the public herd mentality is not swayed by the magic that happens when mind and heart and hand and paper work together. Rather, it is guided by talk shows and movie producers and TV commercials. (pg. 114)

Whenever I am leaving home I bring an index card and a pen with me. I know if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it. Sometimes, I hear of an exact line of dialogue I want to use. I write it down verbatim. To have a wonderful moment or insight and then lose it is one of the worst feelings I can think of. So I now use index cards. My index card life is not efficient nor well organized. All I can say is that the act of having written something down gives me a fifty-fifty shot at having it filed away now in my memory. (pg. 126)

Someone has to read you first drafts. This person may not have an answer to what is missing, but they may be able to tell you whether or not you've found a way to tell you story right. There must be someone out there who will read your finished drafts and give you an honest critique, let you know what does and doesn't work, give you some suggestions on things you might take out or things on which you need to elaborate, ways in which to make your piece stronger. I always show my work to one of two people before sending a copy to my editor or agent. When someone reliable gives you this kind of feedback, you now have some true sense of your work's effect on people, and you may now know how to approach your final draft. (pg. 151)

If you are thinking you will immediately have fame and fortune after publication, think again. If you are lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent. There will be a few book signing parties and maybe some readings, where the only person who will show up is your relative or neighbor. Really, in the end publication is about the acknowledgement from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you're a published writer. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy. (pg. 199)

The beginnings of a second or third book are a full sprint of confidence because you have been published, and false starts and terror because now you have to prove yourself again. People may find out that you were a flash in the pan, that it was all beginner's luck. You will have to work hard to not stop too often to admire yourself and your publishedness in the mirror. Keep the mindset that the real payoff is he writing itself, that a day when you have gotten your work done is a good day, that total dedication is the point. (pg. 200)

Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you're conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and really caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for the reader. They will recognize their life and truth in what you say and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of. Try to write in a directly emotional way. Don't be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of not getting your writing done. If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don't worry about appearing sentimental. (pg. 209)

Becoming a writer can also profoundly change your life as a reader. One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer's eyes. (pg. 216)

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