In the interest of full disclosure, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott has always held a special place on my bookshelf. The copy I own is one I bought for a creative writing class way back when I was an undergrad in a creative writing program. And while there are a couple of books on the list I had read before starting this project, this was the only one I’d read more than once.
Usually when I read this book, it’s because my writing isn’t going as well as I want it to and I need something to make me feel better. This time, I was reading it for much different reasons and I was surprised by what I learned.
Here are some thoughts I had on Bird by Bird.
Shitty first drafts
If you know anything about this book, there’s a good chance it’s probably the thing about shitty first drafts. Early on, Lamott talks about the importance of just getting your story down on the page without worrying about the quality of what you’re writing or what anyone else might think of it because no one else will see this early version but you. Making it good and showing it to other people can wait for later drafts.
What really struck me about this advice on this reading was how different it is from what you read in other popular writing advice books (or, at least, the ones on this list). Which is to say, in On Writing, Stephen King talks about writing with the door closed but that’s only after he spends a lot of time emphasizing the importance of learning proper grammar and mechanics and avoiding adverbs. Most of the books on this list are like that, making it sound like you need to learn everything there is to know about how to craft the perfect sentence or paragraph before you so much as pick up a pen or place your fingertips on the keyboard. Also, you have to read All the Great Literature to learn how writing is Supposed to Be Done.
It’s not that Lamott doesn’t talk about these things or that the other books don’t discuss the importance of “butt in chair” time. The difference is that Lamott puts her advice about shitty first drafts front and center. It’s almost the first thing in the book. This is really important, I think, because she places it even before saying anything about craft. She also places it before she says anything about research.
Speaking of which…
RESEARCH. Lamott has an entire section on RESEARCH. Okay, she doesn’t actually call it that. She refers to it as “calling around.” The example she uses is a call she once made to a local vineyard to learn what the “wire thing” on a bottle of wine is called. These days, you would probably just Google that information, but still. Gap in knowledge + seeking information to fill that gap = research.
To understand why I’m so excited about this, it helps to know that this is one of the only books on the list that talks about the role of research in creative writing in any substantial, recognizable way. Other books make allusions to research without saying much about how or why it might be necessary, much less how to go about doing it. As someone searching these books for this specific information, it was a little thrilling to find it in a book I thought I already knew well.
Research is part of the work
The thing is, even in the books that do talk about research, it tends to be discussed not as something that is part of the writing process but instead as something that interferes with it. In On Writing, Stephen King more or less suggests that research ruins the magic of creativity, which is why he recommends saving it until later (and only if you’re caught getting something wrong). In Back to Creative Writing School, Bridget Whelan even includes a “research warning” in one of the exercises that cautions against spending too much time searching for information.
Lamott is the only one that treats information seeking as part of the work. She tells the reader that it’s not “shirking.” She also talks about how research can enhance your writing, as in an example where she wanted one of her characters to be interested in gardening but had no gardening knowledge herself. She ended up calling a local nursery to learn what she needed to know.
I think the debate over whether research is part of the writing process, and therefore an example of productivity, or its own separate thing, and therefore an example of procrastination, is an interesting one. But honestly it also sort of baffles me that Lamott is the only one in this group talking about it this way.
If I had to give one book about writing to an aspiring young writer…
Honestly, I think aspiring writers can benefit from reading any of the books on this list. There are good reasons each of these have earned their places among the “most popular” and that a lot of them are taught in creative writing classrooms. But if a traditional age college student with an interest in creative writing came to me and asked me to recommend just one book, it would be this one.* I would say “read this right now.”
…even though I didn’t get it until I was much older
And then I would say, “and read it again when you’re thirty.” I have no idea what I thought of this book when I was an undergraduate. I must have liked it well enough, since I kept a copy of it all these years. I imagine, though, that back then I was a lot like the students Lamott describes in the book, the ones who probably think they already know everything about how to write and only want to learn how to get published. Now that I’m older and have spent some time teaching (though not about writing), I can identify with Lamott’s perspective a lot more and also better appreciate the humor. Because while there’s a lot that this book has that I think other writing books on this list lack, the number one thing is that it’s funny as hell.
*You didn’t’ ask, but if I could pick more than one book for this particular reader and was allowed to go beyond these ten books, the others would be Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig and Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon.