Book Notes: 'Bird by Bird' by Anne Lamott

I'm going to attempt, for a little while anyway, to make public some of my notes from some of the books that I've read. This is partly because people are forever asking what I'm reading, but it's mostly as a way to try and encourage myself to read both more deeply and more frequently -- a target I have been trying, and failing, to hit for all my adult life.

All projects and hobbies of mine eventually die from lack of attention if they cannot serve multiple purposes. So it is my hope that these notes will add even more reason to engage more frequently with long-form writing.

These won't be reviews, they really will just be some sections of the book with a line or two on why I highlighted them. But I hope that they can give you a good idea of if a book might or might not be for you, and if you should read it yourself. Many non-fiction books can be summarized with a few lines, but Bird by Bird captures, for me, why it still often feels necessary to read the entire thing and why you may want to as well even after reading my notes:

There may be a flickering moment of insight in a one-liner, in a sound bite, but everyday meat-and-potato truth is beyond our ability to capture in a few words. But the whole piece is the truth, not just oust one shining epigrammatic moment in it.

I often decide to pick up a book when I hear about it from too many different kinds of people. So it went with Bird by Bird which I'd been recommended not just by writers but also by many people with entirely un-writerly lives.

The Big Idea

When discussing the weekly column that Lamott wrote she said of the moment she sat down at her desk to actually write something:

Even after I'd been doing this for years, panic would set in.

As a person who makes semi-regular things, it's relieving to hear others express the same thought. After every, single, video I think: “I’ll never be able to do that again”.

The idea of the shitty first draft is that you shouldn't expect the first iteration of anything you do to be good. It's not supposed to be good: it's just supposed to be started.

All I had to do was to write a really shitty first draft of, say, the opening paragraph. And no one was going to see it. So I'd start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible.

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 .

Also, trying to fix the unpleasant feeling of creative work is pointless. It’s always unpleasant. That’s just what creation is.

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts… Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled.

Pink Highlights

Pink highlights are reserved for particularly striking or important passages. I found them in the section on writers' 'block':

The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you're empty.

'Downtime' is less downtime than filling-up time. But just because you are empty doesn't mean you are off the hook. Empty isn't an excuse to stop working: it's a warning to just have your non-zero work day and go fill up with learning or experiences.

But if you accept the reality that you have been given that you are not in a productive creative period you free yourself to begin filling up again. I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day. Then, on bad days and weeks, let it go at that.

Actionable Items

Twice Lamott pushes the point of why reaching out to other people while in the stages of your own work is beneficial thing to do:

The truth is that there are simply going to be times when you can't go forward in your work until you find out something… So figure out who would have this information and give that person a call… And it may also turn out that in searching for this one bit of information, something else will turn up that you absolutely could not have known would be out there waiting for you.

By far and away, this is the thing that I have the most problem with:

But by all means let someone else take a look at your work. It's too hard always to have to be the executioner. Also, you may not be able to see the problems.

On rare, rare occasions I’ve asked for feedback on scripts that I’m either particularly uncertain about or that have had unusually tight deadlines. The result is always better than before. But I don’t like the imposition that it causes — even though those same people have, on occasion, asked me to look at their own things and I am always happy to.

Other Notes

On inspiration:

And… you're off and running. And it really is like running. It always reminds me of the last lines of Rabbit, Run: "his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs." I wish I felt that kind of inspiration more often. I almost never do. All I know is that if I sit there long enough, something will happen. My students stare at me for a moment. "How do we find an agent?” they ask.

On not listening to the radio station in your head:

If you are not careful, station KFIKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one's specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn't do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit.

On taking notes:

Hostile, aggressive students insist on asking what I do with all my index cards. And all I can say is that I have them, I took notes on them, and the act of having written something down gives me a fifty-fifty shot at having it filed away now in my memory.

As a man with, at the time of writing, 2,353 notes in Evernote this is a bit of a relief.

You can get a copy of Bird by Bird at