Of Birds and Words and Life
Sometimes I wonder about my own motivation for wanting to write. On the one hand, it may be something as practical as wanting to publish so I can pay off my student loans. But on my better days, I realize that I have, like most people, mixed motives. I want to write to raise money to help poor orphans in Somalia get food and attention and the love of Jesus. But sometimes I think I also want to amass a Twilight-sales-sized fortune and the loyal following of literary-minded female groupies with the soul of Dorothy Sayers and the looks of Audrey Hepburn. (Ahem. This was all, of course, before I started dating Kasia.)
Well, whatever mixed motives I might have, Anne Lamott speaks to this in her book Bird By Bird: Thoughts on Writing and Life. She writes with words that have the bite of conviction and the balm of healing—kind’ve like Bactine on a scraped knee. And her thoughts apply to everyone who wants to go deeper into the experience of life—writer or no.
Lamott’s main emphasis is that whether we are writers or just “normal people”, we should learn to pay attention, and that life around us is always speaking, if we will just listen to it (97). By paying attention, we develop wonder and delight in the world. She writes, “This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of—please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in our small, bordered worlds” (100).
Ways that Lamott encourages writers to share that wonder include letter writing, or giving a piece of writing as a gift to someone else. In becoming writers and people who pay attention, she encourages her readers to be the kind of people who can perceive culture very closely and help better the world.
In contrast to this, she decries the writer who only wants to have fame and respect, and thinks he/she will finally be happy once he/she is published. Lamott’s position is summarized and illustrated beautifully in a line she takes from the movie Cool Runnings. The men on an Olympic sledding team are desperate to win a gold medal. Lamott writes, “‘But the coach says, “if you are not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.’ You may want to tape this to the wall near your desk” (218).
In a way, Bird by Bird is almost a cultural commentary and critique of the contemporary definition of success. It addresses people’s obsession with writing as a means to the end of publishing, rather than the noble enterprise of writing itself. It emphasizes writing’s cathartic effects on the heart and soul, and the potential it has for bettering the lives of the people around us. It is semi-autobiographical, like Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg or The Faith of the Writer by Joyce Carol Oates. It has the professional insight of On Writing Well by William Zinsser, the wit and humor of Mark Twain, and the verbal color and pizazz of Ray Bradbury.
Lamott teaches college-level classes on writing, but her prose is accessible and approachable for everyone, regardless of education or background. There is also something both eternally-minded and yet earthy about this book. Anne Lamott is a professing Christian (albeit not entirely orthodox) who is a single mom. Her spiritual memoir Traveling Mercies reflects the divinity and the humanity of the Son of God himself. These qualities find their way into Bird By Bird. At times, her words seem almost Scriptural in their depth: “what your giving [through writing] can do is to help your readers be braver, be better than they are, be open to the world again” (206). Yet Lamott always finds a way to get us laughing and thinking at the same time. In addressing the kinds of mean-spirited people who are overly critical of other’s writing, she asks, “why waste what little time you may have left with such scum?” Then she adds, tongue firmly in cheek, “I worry that Jesus drinks himself to sleep when he hears me talk like this” (170).
I don’t know about that. But I do know that any human being who wants to be a better writer and person will laugh and cry and be improved and challenged and thoroughly enjoy what they read in Bird by Bird. Whether you live to write or write very little as you live, I strongly recommend you read this book and apply its thoughts to your life.
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