“Bird by Bird” with Anne Lamott

Jim LaBate
5 min readJul 27, 2022
Photo by Shlomo Shalev on Unsplash

In 1994, author Anne Lamott published a book of essays entitled Bird by Bird. On the surface, that title sounds like an odd choice from a writer who at that time had written four novels and a memoir about the first year of her son’s life (Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year). The book, however, is not about birds; instead, Lamott was referring to a family story about the writing process, and the essays in the book — subtitled “Some Instructions on Writing and Life” — cover various aspects of writing from “Getting Started” to “Publication.”

The “bird-by-bird” story actually referred to Lamott’s older brother who was facing a writing task of his own. Like many ten-year-old boys, John had procrastinated for three months and, then, panicked the day before the assignment was due. As Anne tells it, “he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead” (19). Fortunately for the children, their father, Kenneth, was a writer himself, and he had published novels and magazine articles. So, based on his own experience, he remained calm and offered his fatherly wisdom: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird” (19).

Photo by A n v e s h on Unsplash

This idea of breaking the writing task down into smaller parts is one of the key ideas in the book and one that writers everywhere should absorb. In fact, just a page earlier in the same book, Lamott quotes American novelist E. L. Doctorow who offers similar counsel: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (18). Lamott goes on to say that “This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard” (18).

In this book, Lamott has various chapters on different aspects of writing, but three stand out. First, in “Getting Started,” she says that when she teaches writing, she often encounters students who don’t know what to write about or who feel as if they have nothing to write about. To encourage them, Lamott quotes American short-story writer Flannery O’Connor who once said, “Anyone who survived…

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Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.