Monday, February 25, 2008

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott

The Book: Anne Lamott, BIRD BY BIRD: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Pantheon trade paperback (fifth printing), 1994. Very good condition; pages are slightly age-browned.
First read: 1995
Owned since: 1995

Most books about writing are useless or worse. The point of writing is to be able to find your own voice on paper, and no one can teach you how to do that; you have to figure it out for yourself.

A good coach or guide can help, though, and this book is one of the best. In fact, this book is one of the only ones I recommend to clients or aspiring writers; the others will be subjects of later posts this week.

The irony here is that I'm not a fan of Lamott's fiction. I prefer her memoirs, and include this book among those, since it's very personal. In fact, much of the material here echoes Lamott's earlier memoir, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, although the focus is different. But one of Lamott's points is that the writing process is similar for everyone, regardless of what they produce.

The act of writing is a leap of faith, and Lamott's particular strength is her ability to discuss it that way. One of the book's best chapters is "Radio Station KFKD" (say it out loud, as a word), a discussion of how writers sabotage themselves. KFKD plays in our heads:

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 one touches turns to...

It goes on like that for a while. The left speaker's always louder than the right one, at least for me. But Lamott says the key to ignoring it is first to simply acknowledge that it's there. It's like the truck noise on Water Street, outside my bedroom window. I heard it the first few days I lived in this apartment; now I never hear it at all. It is not relevant to whatever else I am doing, and neither is Radio Station KFKD.


Bea said...

Bad influence is a bit strong. "Fun enablers" is closer to the mark.

Karen Olson said...

I love this book. And you're right, it's quite a bit a memoir as much as it is a writing book.