Thursday, 14 December 2017

Book Review: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont

Review by Jeanette O'Hagan

Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird is considered a classic writing craft book and has inspired a generation of writers. Like most popular books, it gets mixed reviews on Goodreads (though an over all positive rating). It is, perhaps, one of those books you love - or hate.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”  Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

The Book:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeAnne Lamott
Anchor Books: 1995
Available at Amazon

The Author:

Anne Lamott is an American novelist and non-fiction writer.  She writes about love and loss in her novels and explores parenthood, flaws, faith, and the craft of writing in her non-fiction with a self-effacing and gritty humour.

My thoughts:

I was a little unsure when I first started reading Bird by Bird. Lamott starts with an autobiographical recounting of growing up with her writer father and his bohemian writer friends, of her own first attempts at writing a hopelessly flawed short story titled Arnold - and her search for publication, which only came after writing about her father's death.  Like Stephen King's On Writing, the writing tips or instruction in Bird by Bird are woven with a strong autobiographical thread - which is perhaps its strength and also its weakness.

Lamott's tone is conversational. She addresses a range of issues that writers face, in part as a report of what she teaches her students and how they react to her teachings (often with horror), in part a direct conversation with the reader, in part flights of creative writing and almost stream of consciousness flourishes that can be wickedly humorous or deeply moving or even at times mildly annoying (perhaps depending on one's mood and experience). 

If you are looking for a paint-by-numbers or follow-the-formula approach to writing - you won't find it here. Lamott's process is deeply intuitive and largely 'pantsting' and highly creative. And the book is as much, or more, about what it means to be a writer, the writing life, as it about nutting out a perfectly structured plot or tracing a compelling character arc. As important as plot structure and character arcs, internal wounds and mirror moments may be - I found myself resonating to Bird by Bird in a deeper way than more 'how-to' writing books (which often detail the 'one' way to do things that only the writer has discovered). 

There are definitely gems of advice and insight in Lamott's musings - some of which may have become truisms over time. She deals with issues of perfectionism, insecurities, shitty first drafts, writers block, the need to fill the creative well and to be kind to our writerly selves, as well how to discover our characters (like an image emerging from Polaroid photo), go deep into the pain, discovering one's voice, and the proper weight of publication. Above all, she reminds us that the reward of writing is not outward accolades, but the joys (and pains) of writing itself. And through it all, she is brutally honest and bitingly funny. And here and there, she gives us poignant glimpses of faith and grace.

I found Anne Lamott and Bird by Bird  a refreshing and inspiring read.


Jeanette started spinning tales in the world of Nardva at the age of eight or nine. She enjoys writing secondary world fiction, poetry, blogging and editing. Her Nardvan stories span continents, time and cultures. They involve a mixture of courtly intrigue, adventure, romance and/or shapeshifters and magic users. She has published numerous short stories, poems, two novellas and her debut novel, Akrad's Children. Find her on Facebook or at her webpages Jeanette O'Hagan Writes or Jenny's Thread.


  1. Thanks, Jeanette--an excellent review of probably my all-time favourite book about writing and the writing life. I enjoy her honest way of writing (love the chapter on 'Jealousy'!) and her general quirkiness--and I love her emphasis on listening to where the story wants to go. One gem re this that has stayed in my mind is the following: 'Just don't pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don't. Stay open to them. Ti's teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It's that simple.'

    1. Thanks, Jo-Anne. Yes, love her raw honesty delivered with a quirky sense of humour. She had me in stitches in places. And also love her openness to her characters and, indeed to an intuitive, right-brain to writing.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.