Review of BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE by ANNE LAMOTT
I believe that books about writing fall into three categories: business, craft, and philosophy. Business is about the industry of publishing, craft the techniques behind good writing, and philosophy the emotional pitfalls of this creative endeavor. I believe it’s important to distinguish between these three conversations, because they’re very different and readers are usually seeking specific advice about one of these aspects when they buy a writing book. For me, to say a book is “about writing,” is too broad a statement. BIRD BY BIRD is mostly about the philosophy of writing, making the book a relatable and worthwhile read for writers of all kinds.
On a basic level, there’s a lot of familiar advice here: Don’t be afraid to write shitty first drafts as the only way to improve is to start. Most of writing is re-writing. Finding good critique partners makes a world of difference in the quality of your work, your understanding of a good story on a structural level, and building a good support network. Lamott also addresses the elusive art of balancing the realities of writing and publishing with the social perception of “being a writer.”
For me, the most unique section was that on professional jealousy. Lamott admits that throughout her career she has had several writer friends experience more success than her. What’s most interesting about this, though, is that sometimes she finds herself genuinely thrilled for the friend and other times bitterly jealous. Lamott suggests that this discrepancy can come down to perceived “deserving.” If we know how hard someone has worked for something and/or if we believe their work is far superior to ours and many others, it can be easier to view their success as just and inevitable. On the other hand, when we consider someone’s work of poor quality, perhaps inferior to our own, and/or we aren’t convinced they put that much (or as much) time and effort into their process as we do, then being happy for them can prove quite the impossible struggle. I entirely agree with Lamott’s perception, and this is not only one of the best articulated assessments of professional jealousy that I’ve encountered…but also one of the few works that does explicitly discuss writer jealousy at all.
I’m often slow about making time for recommendations, because they’re so hit and miss for me. Numerous publishing professionals recommended BIRD BY BIRD to me over the years. As a writer, you can feel overwhelmed by various writing book recommendations, but this one stood out as the single most recommended book. After reading it, I not only want to kick myself for not buying it a decade ago but I strongly believe BIRD BY BIRD deserves its most-recommended distinction.