Breakneck Book Report: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird


Back in April, I posted a monster roundup of the 20 books I built my freelance life upon. Readers (and writers, obvs) were quick to point out that I had made an egregious omission by not including Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

The truth is, I had plumb forgot about it because, long ago, I lent my copy to someone else, and it was never returned.

Recently, I bought myself a new copy, and immediately fell in love all over again.

Bird by Bird is meant primarily for fiction writers, but the lessons one learns upon reading it can be applied to just about every type of writing (not to mention many aspects of life).

Among them:

Don’t rely upon publication for career satisfaction.

“I believed, before I sold my first book,” Lamott writes, “that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem. This did not happen for me.”

In short: Be sure you’re writing for the right reasons.

Don’t begin a writing assignment with preconceived notions, or force your piece to bend to your will.

“E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.'”

Upon starting a piece, I’m often amazed to discover that the story I’m telling is far different than the one I set out to tell. Allow your writing to take you into previously unforeseen directions.

I also love how this lesson can be applied to your career path. What I’ve wanted has shifted many times over the course of the past 10 years. Each experience I have tells me more about what I do or don’t want to do with my life.

Don’t let perfectionism slow you down.

This one is a doozie for me, as I’m constantly self-editing my work as I go along. As a result, my speed of productivity is about the same — as my dad would put it — as poop rolling up a hill. (My dad is gross.) Allow yourself to fly through a “shitty first draft.” There will be time to edit and polish afterwards.

Be inspired by life.

It’s tough to consistently generate new story ideas when I barely leave the house. Good ideas come from experiences and observations and personal questions. If you are inspired by something, or find yourself with a question to be answered or a problem to be solved, chances are someone else will be similarly inspired, or grateful for the answers and solutions you find.

Don’t tiptoe around your topic.

Lamott writes that you should “write as if your parents are dead.” A former professor of mine made a similar assertion, and I believe it’s good advice. When you tiptoe around your topic, afraid to offend or reveal too much, you’re doing both your readers and your subject matter a disservice.

Of course, Lamott also goes into great detail on character development, scene-setting, plot, and the like. All meant for fiction writers, but applicable to nonfiction as well.

And the way she captures the writing life in her book is so…real and hilariously true (no one does neuroticism and distraction like a writer).

So I can’t recommend this book enough.

It will remind you why you’re writing.

Related: Home-Schooled: 20 Books To Build Your Freelance Life Upon


  1. I loved this book so much when I first read it that I immediately bought copies for three of my writer friends. The thing I love most about it is how Lamott shows that the fruitcake thoughts we all have are actually normal. What a relief!

  2. I took a science fiction writing class about 2 years ago, and both my teachers recommended this book. I enjoyed it as a book on how to write, but also one on how to be a better reader.

    And, while not nearly as good a book on writing, I happen to love reading and rereading Will write for shoes Just for the sillyness, and the great ideas about building character.

  3. @Chloe: Exactly! She perfectly puts into words the neuroses swirling around my own head (not to mention my procrastination tactics).

    @Jan: Thanks for the book suggestion! (I devour these things.) It does look cute.

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