Though I just finished reading Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life I have heard about it and been assigned excerpts from it in several of my writing classes. I think it is everyone's favorite book on writing, even if they disagree with it. After reading the first two pages, I decided that I didn't care whether or not I learned a damn thing from Lamott about writing; it was just fun to read and that was good enough for me.
In that respect, Bird by Bird is a wonderful and refreshing contrast to King's On Writing. It's a charming, hilarious, wonderful book and I would recommend it to anyone. I think that the LA Times review did it the most justice by describing Bird by Bird as "warm" and "generous." In the end, I do think that I learned more about life from Lamott than I did about the craft. This is probably why intro to creative writing teachers assign this book all the time. Freshman writers need about as much advice on art as they do on any other aspect of their lives, so Lamott is a good and thoughtful catch-all.
Anyway, enough generalizations. Onto the meat of the review. ... And here is where I run into problems. Bird by Bird is, for lack of a better term, a bit scatter-brained. This isn't a criticism, because it really works here for a variety of reasons. It just makes a sum-up difficult. Lamott breaks the book down into chapters, but those chapters are generally brief, capricious essays on themes more than in-depth discussions on aspects of the craft. It's a peculiar book, but that's not a bad thing.
Part of the reason this meandering style works is because Lamott is a master of the illustrative anecdote. Throughout the whole book there are seamless transitions from the frame of Lamott's writing seminars, to stories from her life, to discussions on method and art. Reading Bird by Bird is kind of like being led around the playground by a three year-old in the grips of a sugar rush.
Where Lamott excels, though, and I've noticed this in her other writing, too, is in her visceral descriptions of paranoid rumination and malcontent, vicious cycles. Reading Lamott is very cathartic. I thought I was the only person who felt a whirlwind of gratitude, hatred, self-loathing, and inspiration following a crit group. This is probably the real Reason why everyone Loves this book. It speaks to our darkest, most chaotic feelings as sensitive individuals, absolves us for it, and then tells us to move on.
I want to hug this woman.
Frankly, I thought that this would be a very easy review to write, but I'm struggling. So, I'm going back to Lamott's very early piece of advice on writing: small assignments. What I really want to talk about, what fascinates me about the book, is Lamott's philosophy on writing. She has a lot to say about the craft, style, publication, jealousy, libel, assignments, and a plenitude of of other topics -- in fact, she has a book's worth of things to say -- but her Introduction is what sticks with me.
She begins with the frame of her own life as a teacher and writer and says that a question she's frequently asked in interviews is, "Why do you write?" Her standard reply is to quote John Ashbery and Flannery O'Conner, "Because I want to and because I'm good at it." but she goes on to describe her students' motivations to get published and become famous and she says that she tries to help everyone come to see that writing, creating, engaging with the world as an artist is a miraculous, beautiful compulsion.
Why write? Because we all deserve and need to share our own particular experience. That is what I love about Lamott's philosophy and where I agree with her completely. The book is saturated with raw enthusiasm. Lamott wrote this book for You, individually, so that You would have the courage to tell your own story and see that as a right, not a privilege. Or Lamott is far better at duping me than I'd care to admit.
Something else that Lamott mentions in the following chapter about reasons to write struck me as, if not unique, then at least an unusual defense. She says that the greatest reason to write is, essentially, for the love of books. "... Books are as important as anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you.... My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean. Aren't you?"
This is why Bird by Bird is fantastic. Because it is an altruistic message that encourages the reader to be grateful and generous. Right now, I'm going through a challenging transition in my life. I owe my mental stability to friends, family, A, caffeine, liquor, and books. Lamott and George R.R. Martin are helping me get through this. As a result, I want to read and write more. It seems like the least I can do.