Cover of book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

by: Anne Lamott

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35 Highlights | 32 Notes
  • Every morning, no matter how late he had been up, my father rose at 5.30, went to his syudy, wrote for a couple of hours, made us all breakfast, read the paper with my mother, and then went back to work for the rest of the morning. Many years passed before I realized that he did this by choice, for a living, and that he was not unemployed or mentally ill.
    Note: Anne's father's routine
  • Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.
    Note: why write
  • It provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist.
    Note: why blog, why write
  • “Do it every day for a while,” my father kept saying. “Do it as you would so scales on the piano. Do it by prearrangement with yourself. Do it as a det of honor. And make a commitment to finishing things.”
    Note: everyday practice, commit, finish
  • You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night.
    Note: everyday practice
  • E. L. Doctrow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.
    Note: #eq, how to live
  • (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do).
    Note: #funny
  • The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.
    Note: first draft
  • Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft - you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft - you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
    Note: first draft, drafts
  • Left to its own devices, my mind spends much of its time having conversations with people who aren't there. I walk along defending myself to people, or exchanging repartee with them, or rationalizing my behavior, or seducing them with gossip, or pretending I'm on their TV talk show or whatever. I speed or run an aging yellow light or don't come to a full stop, and one nanosecond later am explaining to imaginary cops exactly why I had to do what I did, or insisting that I did not in fact do it.
  • Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail, and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, and drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won't do what they want - wont give them more money, won't be more successful, won't see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft.
    Note: #funny, meditation
  • She explained that when we have a wound in our body, the nearby muscles cramp around it to protect it from any more violation and from infection, and that I would need to use these muscles if I wanted them to relax again.
    Note: how to relax
  • If you don't believe in God, it may help to remember this great line of Geneen Roth's: that awareness is learning to keep yourself company. And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage.
    Note: #eq, Geneen Roth, self encouragement
  • Bad things happen to good characters, because our actions have consequences, and we do not all behave perfectly all the time. As soon as you start protecting your characters from the ramifications of their less-than lofty behavior, your story will start to feel flat and pointless, just like in real life.
    Note: raising children
  • Here is a passage by Andre Dubus that I always pass out to my students when we first begin to talk about character:

    I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice. We can sit all night with our friend while he talks about the end of his marriage, and what we finally get is a collection of stories about passion, tenderness, misunderstanding, sorrow, money; those hours and days and moments when he was absolutely married, whether he and his wife were screaming at each other or sulking around the house, or making love. While his marriage was dying, he was also working; spending evenings with friends, rearing children; but those are other stories. Which is why, days after hearing a painful story by a friend, we see him and say: How are you? We know that by now he may have another story to tell, or he may be in the middle of one, and we hope it is joyful.

    Note: #eq, how-to-live, Andre dubus
  • Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.
    Note: how to write a plot
  • All you can give us is what life is about from your point if view. You are not going to be able to give us the plans to the submarine. Life is not a submarine. There are no plans.
    Note: what to write
  • If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days - listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off. You take home all you've taken in, all that you've overheard, and you turn it into gold. (Or at least you try.)
    Note: observation
  • You must learn about people from people, not from what you read. Your reading should confirm what you've observed in the world.
    Note: observation
  • You can't will yourself into being receptive to what the little boy has to offer, and you can't buy a key that will let you into the cellar. You have to relax, and wool-gather, and get rid of the critics, and sit there in some sort of self-hypnosis, and then you have to practice. I mean, you can't just sit there at your desk drooling. You have to move your hand across the paper or keyboard. You may do it badly for a while, but you keep doing it. Try to remember that to some extent, you're just the typist. A good typist listens.
    Note: what Dorothea Brande says too, unconscious
  • Just as everyone is a walking advertisement for who he or she is, so every room is a little showcase of its occupants' values and personalities. Every room is about memory. Every room gives us layers of information about our past and present and who we are, our shrines, and our quirks and hopes and sorrows, our attempts to prove that we exist and are more or less Okay. You can see, in our rooms, how much light we need - how many light bulbs, candles, skylights we have - and in how we keep our things lit you can see how we comfort ourselves. The mix in our rooms is so touching: the clutter and the cracks in the wall belie a bleakness or brokenness in our lives, while photos and a few rare objects show our pride, our rare shining moments.
    Note: observation surroundings
  • … because the one thing I knew for sure was that if you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.
    Note: #funny
  • Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on. Now, if you ask me, what's going on is that we're all up to here in it, and probably the most important thing is that we not yell at one another.

    Writing involves seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein. But you can't do that if you're not respectful.
  • I honestly think in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here?

    Let's think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. The alternative is that we stultify, we shut down. Think of those times when you've read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone's soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment.

  • Taped to the wall above my desk is a wonderful poem by the Persian mystic, Rumi:
    God's joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
    from cell to cell. As rainwater, down into flowerbed.
    As roses, up from the ground.
    Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
    now a cliff covered with vines,
    now a horse being saddled.
    It hides within these,
    till one day it cracks them open.
    There is ecstasy in paying attention.
    Note: #eq, Rumi, paying attention, observation
  • To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass - seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcisstic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.
    Note: #funny, attention, monkey mind
  • Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.
    Note: dual self
  • KFKD is on every single morning when I sit down at my desk. So I sit for a moment and then say a small prayer - please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written. Sometimes ritual quiets the racket.
    Note: ritual
  • Hillel's line to the wall by my desk: “I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.” The way I dance is by writing. So I wrote about trying to pay closer attention to the world, about taking things less seriously, moving more slowly, stepping outside more often. Eventually what I was writing got funnier and compassion broke through, for me and also my writer friend.
    Note: #eq, Hillel, dance and writing
  • It was such a rare scene that you would think I would remember it forever. I used to think that if something was important enough, I'd remember it until I got home, where I could simply write it down in my notebook like some normal functioning member of society.
    But then I wouldn't.
    Note: tricky memory, on taking notes
  • It may be that you've had children. When a child comes out of your body, it arrives with about a fifth of your brain clutched in its little hand, like those babies born clutching IUDs. So for any number of reasons, it's only fair to let yourself take notes.
    Note: #funny, on taking notes
  • Long after the conference was over, I found a poem by Bill Holm, which I wanted to send to the young man. But I no longer had his address. It is called “August in Waterton, Alberta”

    Ábove me, wind does its best
    to blow leaves off
    the aspen tree a month too soon.
    No use wind. All you succeed
    in doing is making music, the noise
    of failure growing beautiful.

    Note: #eq, Bill Holm, on criticism
  • It helps to resign as the controller of your fate. All that energy we expend to keep things running right is not what's keeping things running right. We're bugs struggling in the river, brightly visible to the trout below. With that fact in mind, people like me make up all these rules to give us the illusion that we are in charge. I need to say to myself, they're not needed, hon. Just take in the buggy pleasures. Be kind to the others, grab the fleck of riverweed, notice how beautifully your bug legs scull.
    Note: futility of trying to control everything
  • Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more. This is a radical proposition that runs so contrary to human nature, or at least to my nature, that I personally keep trying to find loopholes in it.
    Note: one project at a time, all your best - now
  • Your three-year-old and your work in progress teach you to give. They teach you to get out of yourself and become a person for someone else. This is probably the secret to happiness. So that's one reason to write. Your child and your work hold you hostage, suck you dry, ruin your sleep, mess with your head, treat you like dirt, and then you discover they've given you the gold nugget you were looking for all along.
    Note: futility of trying to control everything