Sunday, December 05, 2010

Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" and Jealousy

Motivation for reading:
I added Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life to my reading list when Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness mentioned it in her post Happy Birthday, Anne Lamott. She had read it during a creative nonfiction class as a way to learn how to write narrative essays without getting bogged down. I decided I needed to read this book now when Kim included Anne Lamott on her list of 15 novelists who've influenced her because of this book.

What is the book about?
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a memoir Lamott has written based on lessons she learned over the years working as a writer and teacher of a writing class. She provides advice on the craft of writing as well as humorous antidotes about life especially the life of a writer.

My thoughts:
I’ve read other books on writing: Steven King’s On Writing and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want To Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit,but this book is so much more than a book on writing. Individual readers will be influenced by different sections of the book based on their life experiences. The first half of the book concentrates on the writing process. She covers “Shitty First Drafts,” plot and set design. She also writes about the emotional side of writing; writer’s block, discouraging voices, and loneliness. She encourages writers to dig deeper to find their own voice. Since I am not a creative fiction writer I skimmed the chapters on character and dialogue, but her writings about life were exceptional. Her essay on jealousy is the best writing on the subject I’ve ever read.

Everyone who has been hit with the green-eyed-monster will relate to this chapter. I think jealousy has become more prevalent during the recession. Some of us have done everything right; we've earned a college degree, have a good work ethic, even have relevant work experience, but can't get a job interview while our less experienced friend snags their dream job. It’s hard not to become jealous when we are stuck in a job we can’t stand or worse yet remain unemployed.  

Anne writes:
Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you. Pg 122.
And I, who have been the Leona Helmsley of jealousy, have come to believe that the only things that help ease or transform it are (a) getting older, (b) talking about it until the fever breaks, and (c) using it as material. Also, someone along the way is going to make you start laughing about it, and then you will be on your way home. Pg 124.
My therapist said that jealousy is a secondary emotion that is born out of feeling excluded and deprived, and that if I worked through age old feelings I would probably break through the jealousy. She said this other writer was in my life to heal my past. She said the writer had helped bring up a lifetimes worth of feeling that other families had some owner’s manual to go by. She said it was once again comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. Go ahead and feel the feelings. Pg 126.
This quote on reading and writing is my favorite quote from the book:
Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship. Pg 237.
Bottom line: I want to own a copy of this book. I believe it is a book I could read again and again taking away something different with each reading.


  1. I loved that book too, like a pep talk from a best girlfriend. And Brenda Ueland's too, especially the part on "helpful criticism": "Sometimes I think of life as a process where everybody is discouraging and taking everybody else down a peg or two." And later "There is that American pastime known as "kidding"--with the result that everyone is ashamed and hangdog about showing the slightest enthusiasm or passion or sincere feeling about anything."

    You might also like Elizabeth Berg's "Escaping into the Open, the art of writing true."

  2. I'm glad you decided to read this book. I haven't read it in its entirety in awhile, I want to say for at least 4 years, but am planning to sometime this spring. It's always been an important book to me, I think because of the last quote you shared - thinking about writing is way of giving us buoyancy and making us laugh about life and ourselves.

  3. I write Science Fiction (in a very desultory-won't be giving up my day job any time soon--manner) and I've always loved 'Bird by Bird.' I'm also a fan of Natalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones." The jealousy part is something few writers will admit, but it is SO true! I go to a monthly workshop wherein everyone there is far more professionally accomplished than I am--and yes! I'm jealous of them all!

  4. Syd,
    "Sometimes I think of life as a process where everybody is discouraging and taking everybody else down a peg or two."
    I agree. It is so sad and such a waste of energy. I am adding Elizabeth Berg's book to my TBR list. Thanks for the recommendation.

    If you read the book again I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on a second reading. Though you do read much deeper than I do; I was reading Lamott's book "Grace (Eventually) Thoughts on Faith" when you posted your review. I felt I missed so much I went back to the beginning and started over. And no I am not jealous more like in awe.

    Thanks for sharing. I didn’t know you wrote science fiction. How exciting. I am thinking everyone has the potential to become jealous if the right buttons are pushed. I am usually not a jealous person, so these feeling really bother me. They are so consuming. This person is someone in my circle who has everything handed to her and if not she demands it, whereas, I came from nothing and had to overcome obstacles like my Dad forbidding me from attending college. Everything I’ve achieved has come from hard work. My girl friend calls this person the “Entitled One.” I am trying to focus on my life and what I can control and the jealous feelings are starting to subside.