Monday 20 October 2014

Favourite Writing Craft Book - Jo-Anne Berthelsen

Bird by Bird: Some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott
Originally published by Anchor Books (Random  House) 1994
Aust/NZ edition Scribe Publications 2008

What inspired you to read this book?
Jo-Anne: I came across Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird by accident, while browsing in a large bookstore around six years ago, and was immediately intrigued by its title. Why call a book about writing Bird by Bird? After reading the explanation on the back cover, I became even more intrigued. Anne Lamott sounded so original and quirky—I had never heard of her and wanted to find out more. And when I did, I was not disappointed. In this memoir-cum-writing instruction book, Anne Lamott manages to combine honest glimpses into her own slightly crazy life with wonderful lessons on key aspects of writing in a way that is witty, insightful, sad, colourful, disarming and self-deprecating—but, above all, never boring.

How has this writing craft book helped you to improve your writing?
Jo-Anne:  It’s hard to be brief here, but I’ll focus on two main ways.

Firstly, I felt validated as an author by so much of what Anne Lamott wrote about her approach to writing—and this gave me more confidence that I was on the right track myself. I had written two or three novels by the time I discovered Bird by Bird but still had so many questions about myself as an author. For example, I wondered if it was ‘okay’ to go with what my characters seemed to want to do and say. Then I read the following in Anne Lamott’s chapter on ‘Plot’ and loved it:

Over and over I feel as if my characters know who they are, and what happens to them, and where they have been and where they will go, and what they are capable of doing, but they need me to write it down for them because their handwriting is so bad. (p 60)

Secondly, her encouragement to be honest in what I produced helped me to write with more integrity. For example, her chapter entitled ‘Character’ challenged me to treat my own characters with more respect:

You make up your character, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up.  ... Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple. (p 52)

Why would you recommend this book to other writers?
Jo-Anne:  Bird by Bird includes great information not only on the ‘how to’ of writing a novel or memoir but also on how to be a writer. There are many excellent chapters in Part One, entitled  ‘Writing’, on matters such as first drafts, plot, character, setting and dialogue. But Part Two, ‘The Writing Mind’, contains even more gold, in my opinion, on topics such as the moral point of view, overcoming self-doubt, and dealing with jealousy—things that can cripple us as authors. Parts Three and Four also offer many wise suggestions in areas such as obtaining help from others, finding your voice and handling publication.  

Who do you believe would benefit the most from reading and studying this book?
Jo-Anne:  The back cover states that Bird by Bird is for both ‘serious writers and writers-to-be’—and I agree, although I do think those a little further into their writing journey might benefit most.

Jo-Anne Berthelsen lives in Sydney but grew up in Brisbane. She holds degrees in Arts and Theology and has worked as a high school teacher, editor and secretary, as well as in local church ministry. Jo-Anne is passionate about touching hearts and lives through both the written and spoken word. She is the author of six published novels and one non-fiction work, Soul Friend: the story of a shared spiritual journey. Jo-Anne is married to a retired minister and has three grown-up children and four grandchildren. For more information, please visit


  1. Hi Jo-Anne, What an intriguing title. Thanks for your review. Lamont's book sounds like a rich seam of insight on both writing and being a writer; one to add to the to-read list :)

    1. Yes, I don't want to spoil it by saying why the book has that title, but it's explained on the back cover! I think you would enjoy this book, Jeanette, so I hope you get to read it sometime.

  2. Oh, I love quirky but original. You've sold me Jo. I agree wholeheartedly on what she says about characters coming from experience and our own subconscious.

    1. Yes, I can just imagine you enjoying some of Anne Lamott's lovely, honest little insights about writing, Rita! Who knows where those characters of ours come from?

  3. Thank you for the review, Jo-Anne. I've ordered this book straight away.

    1. I found 'Bird by Bird' so refreshing and insightful the first time I read it, Hazel, so I hope you do too. And, even now, I still dip back into it quite often. I think her honesty appeals to me--she just writes as she sees it and doesn't worry too much about what people might think!

  4. Hi Jo-Anne, I've heard many writers rave about this book and now I know why. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  5. This is one of my favourites too Jo-Anne. I wonder if yours has lots of highlighted bits as mine does?


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