Sunday, April 15, 2012

Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird"

Every writer under the sun recommends Bird by Bird; Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  I'm not sure I agree.  It's lauded for two things:  its good advice for writers and its humor.  Neither quite lived up to their build-up.

Anne Lamott's advice-giving centers less on concrete writing tips than on trying to change her reader's mindset.  I suppose she does a good job of it, but it wasn't what I was looking for.  Her brand of humor focuses very much on the "poor me, I'm so insecure, writing is torture" aspect of life.  While funny at first, eventually I just started rolling my eyes.  "Then don't write, lady," I felt like saying.  And I suppose that's part of the mindset she's trying to get across:  writing is a grueling, sometimes overwhelming occupation, linked too closely with our self-esteem, but those of us who are true writers can't stop.  It's the nightmare of our choice.

Still, the nightmare humor got old quickly.  After so much whining about how awful it is to be a writer, I'd just have to put the book down for a few days.  I think, however, that one of her purposes in writing the book was to gently burst new writers' bubbles, to convince them that writing is tough, full of rejection, criticism, publication politics, self-doubt, and fear, and that publication doesn't fix all our problems or bring us everlasting joy.  The first part I've known for a while.  The second part I'm beginning to learn.  It's a bitter pill, but she tries to soften it with dark humor.

It's clever writing overall, and has some really profound bits.  I just don't think it measures up to its reputation.  And I don't think writing's quite as painful as all that.  It gives me a lot of pleasure, a thing she often underemphasizes, perhaps because pleasure isn't as funny as pain.

My favorite quote, written in reference to critique groups, but applicable to many things in life:  "You don't always have to chop with the sword of truth.  You can point with it, too."—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

My rating:  3

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