A couple of years ago I made the decision to become a “writer”—someone who explores and learns and arranges words for a living. The New Yorker became my muse, and each issue whetted my intellectual appetite, demonstrating all of the topics one could explore as a writer. A writer, I thought, was, in essence, a professional learner. I envisioned myself traveling to myriad countries, speaking with fascinating individuals, and constantly learning.
What I did not envision, however, was just how painful the act of writing was.
Forcing myself to sit down and stare at a blank page was—and still is—excruciating. Why won’t the sentences come? Why aren’t the words flowing like they should? I would think to myself. How could I be a writer (and doesn’t everyone want to be a writer?) if I didn’t enjoy the act itself?
Something had to be wrong with me, and I frequently questioned my career aspirations as a result. But then I discovered that I wasn’t alone.
I had frequently heard about Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life from numerous writers, but it took me quite a while—several years, in fact—to finally purchase and read it. A writing manual just did not seem very entertaining to me, despite my love of nonfiction. But a manual it is not, and this became evident as soon as I picked it up.
Lamott has published seven novels, many nonfiction books, and several essayistic collections. Bird by Bird was the first piece of her work that I have read, but I am certainly eager to read more. Each chapter demonstrates a simple but immensely helpful bit of writing advice, such as the necessity of writing “shitty first drafts,” for instance, or combatting “the hopelessness of trying to put words on paper” by writing about one’s memories of school lunches.
Lamott does not glorify the act of writing but rather offers an unglamorous and honest description of all that it entails. Her portrait doesn’t fit the writer career fantasy I had created several years ago, but it does mirror my actual experience. Lamott asserts that “good writing is about telling the truth,” but “turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.” She describes her students, who “show up for the first day of the workshop looking like bright goofy ducklings who will follow me anywhere, but by the time the second class rolls around, they look at me as if the engagement is definitely off.”
Writing is a challenging, arduous task, but for Lamott, it is still worth doing, not least because the mental discipline a writer must cultivate applies to just about every aspect of one’s life. An entire chapter is dedicated to perfectionism, for instance, “the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” Perfectionism, of course, “will ruin your writing.” But Lamott goes further: “Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.”
In every chapter, we come away with a bouquet of gems like this, worthy of compiling into a small book of daily inspiration. And any sense of cliché one may detect is readily dissolved by Lamott’s sharp wit and self-deprecating humor. One particularly raw chapter concerns jealously, specifically the jealousy felt when all of one’s “writer friends” seemingly acquire great success—but jealousy is so powerful it can transcend any particular circumstance.
“You are going to feel awful beyond words,” she writes about jealousy. “It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc on your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend—for, say, her head to blow up.”
I chuckled to myself after reading this, feeling at once ashamed for relating to her feelings, but also less abnormal. And this is Lamott’s superpower: to make the reader feel less alone, to masterfully articulate what we have always felt, perhaps, but lacked the vocabulary to precisely describe it. This was my experience, anyway.
But for all the honesty surrounding the emotional and psychological pain of putting words to paper, Lamott reminds her audience why she nonetheless continues to do it. “Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave,” she writes. Indeed, sometimes I am amazed by how a certain author is capable of arranging words so perfectly so as to convey some profound truth which causes me to observe my surroundings more intently and urges me to probe more deeply into my learned behaviors and thought patterns. “An author,” she says, “makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.”
And this is precisely the effect Lamott had on me. Bird by Bird is essentially a philosophical manifesto disguised as a book of writing advice (although I’m sure Lamott would disagree with this).
“Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious,” she writes. Living consciously is arguably the best profession one could have because, for me, to live consciously is to learn constantly. Lamott seems to share, perhaps implicitly, this idea of a writer as a professional learner. But even more importantly, to write is to connect. I never understood just how intimate the act of writing is, but enduring all that writing requires just to share part of one’s mind with an audience is rather absurd, but also beautiful.
“When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader,” Lamott writes. “He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.”