Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Kathleen Whitney Rohr
Student, MFA

Anne Lamott serves up wise words about character, plot, dialogue, and shitty first drafts with humor and tenderness. Those attributes make taking the medicine; i.e., absorbing the wisdom of a writer and teacher, palatable. A number of years ago, I saw this book on a bookshelf (when there were book stores with books in them) and thought it was about birds. I didn’t notice the subtitle Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Even the paragraph on the back of the book about Lamott’s brother doing a school project on birds suggested that it was, in fact, about, well, birds. I thought it might be interesting. I began looking through it and was disappointed to find out it was about writing. I put it back on the shelf. I missed an opportunity to improve my skills and to read a spiritual book. It was recently assigned to me for a workshop. I didn’t miss the opportunity the second time. Lamott gets me hooked in the Introduction with “All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging.” I understand that desire.

Lamott initially disavows me of believing that the ultimate goal of any writing project is publication. She believed that, too, but now believes that “[p]ublication is not going to change your life or solve your problems,” and the act of writing that is “its own reward.” But not just any writing. She expects no less than telling the truth, because if a writer does not believe in what s/he says, there is no point in saying it. There is more. First, I write the truth, then I assess whether I believe it, and then I have to care. As I’m wrestling with that proviso, she broadsides me by inserting human rights into her conversation. Human rights? Lamott says that human rights extend to all characters, no matter how bad they are. “You have to respect the qualities that make them who they are.”

Bird by Bird with Annie. PBS
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; Poetry Foundation.
Potential. Linda Christensen

Now I’m writing a novel about two men, neither of whose lives appears to necessitate a conversation about human rights. If I had an opportunity to talk to Lamott, intrigued why human rights are part of the discussion in a general craft book, not a legal primer, I think I would find that she is not using the term in the legal sense, but, rather, as a moral imperative. She says the writer ends up wanting his/her characters to act out the drama of humankind. “Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it.”

Lamott comes to the end of the book with a refrain, “…once again you figure out that the real payoff is the writing itself, that a day when you have gotten your work done is a good day, that total dedication is the point.” I can embrace this counsel in theory, that, yes, this should be my goal. But I can’t quite let go of one thing: I want to be published!

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