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Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

by Venky
Book Summary: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

When it comes to books, I have two uncompromising rules: no page gets dog eared, and there is no marking the pages. Recently I read “Bird by Bird”, by Anne Lamott, a past recipient of a Guggenheim, former book review columnist for Mademoiselle, and restaurant critic for California magazine. I still do not dog ear any pages. Ok I know I mentioned ‘uncompromising’. But I still do not believe in dog earing any pages. Juxtaposing side splitting humour with soul scarring stories of personal tragedy, Ms. Anne Lamott gifts every aspiring writer with a simple and practical guide that instills hope, induces optimism and most importantly exhorts the dreamer to keep doing what she loves doing the most – writing. Yes, in plain, simple and colloquial terms, “Bird by Bird” just instructs you to get off your procrastinating and hesitant ass, and – write! While this might not seem to be either ingenious advice nor a silver bullet for obliterating every writer’s cupful of woes, it is without doubt old wine in a never before seen package and never before experienced flavour.  

The “techniques” which Ms. Lamott alludes to in her book are time tested principles that have not just stood but bested the tests of sceptics. However, the manner in which she endeavours to distill such methods in her readers is what makes the book so unique and magical. From obdurately spending time on churning out “shitty first drafts”, to carrying index cards wherever one goes, with a maniacal penchant, Ms. Lamott emphasizes the need to “just getting something down on paper.” The fixing of the hideous output can come later. Ms. Lamott also tackles “writer’s block”, the dreaded scourge of every writer, in a singularly novel manner. “Write about your childhood. Start with kindergarten. Then year 1, 2, 3, … Who were your teachers, classmates, what did you wear, who and what were you jealous of? Now branch out a little. Did your family take vacations during those years? Get these down on paper. Do you remember how much more presentable everybody else’s family looked?”

Ms. Lamott urges her readers to abandon perfection. Writing with a sense of gay abandon – “write as though your parents are dead” – aids and abets discovering new directions and finding a purpose. Deriding perfection as the ‘voice of the oppressor’, Ms. Lamott argues that the attribute can come into the way of lively and frisky writing. Hence the exhortation to plunge into shitty first drafts and bother about the aesthetics later. To a great extent, this principle resonates with the title of the book. Many years ago, when the author’s older brother was struggling to come up with a report on birds, that was long overdue, her father (an author of repute himself) put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” A great inspiration to Ms. Lamott, the book contains many poignant passages involving their relationship and character. Ms. Lamott also paraphrased the irascible, irreverent, yet incomparable Kurt Vonnegut as she drives this powerful point home. “When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth”

Coming back to my reneging on a self-imposed sacrosanct principle of not “sullying” the pages of a book, using any writing instrument. I had to resort to this ‘sacrilege’ because the passages against which I was making those copious margin notes were holding a mirror to my conscience. The fear of scathing criticism that put a spoke in the wheel of extroverted writing reverberated with my own trepidation of being not just found out, but called out as well, in public, and on social media. More the scrawls and scribbles expanded from mere trickles and dribbles into furious outpourings, less was the conviction that it was taboo to mark a book.

The most valuable piece of advice contained in the book relates to getting one’s work published, or most importantly in not getting one’s book published. For all those who harbour the impression that getting published is the moment Bilbo Baggins finds the Ring, there is a word of warning as well as succour. While publishing no doubt bestows immense joy upon a writer and puts her firmly on the literary map, the writing journey does not end there. After the celebrations, again come the gnawing moments of uncertainty and the pressure of keeping up with expectations. Bilbo Baggins, after all was hopelessly lost in the Misty Mountains when he found the ring in a cavern.

The goal of writing is to keep in perpetuity the art of writing itself. As Ms. Lamott informs her readers, the greatest pleasure that is derived by writing is writing itself. This brings me to the brilliant, yet complicated philosophy first pioneered by James Carse, in his book, Infinite Games, and later on popularized by Simon Sinek. The sole objective of an infinite play is to keep playing, in perpetuity. Unlike in a finite game, where the opposing factions are always on the lookout for executing a terminal move that would kill the game, infinite games are antithetical to terminal moves since they are self-perpetuating in nature with no end. Thus, while finite players play within boundaries, infinite players play with boundaries.

Its barely a couple of days since I finished reading this marvelous book, and I already feel as though I have grown a domed carapace that shields me from any ugly or downright dastardly darts that may be flung at both me and my writing after completing Ms. Lamott’s book. Whilst such an imaginary carapace might not lend me a life span of 250 years within which to write a book, it definitely has succeeded beyond my wildest imagination in investing me with a courage that will make me not just hammer away at the keypad of my laptop, but hammer away with a new found gaiety and a lightness of being, that is extremely and extraordinarily bearable.

“Bird by Bird” – the no bullshit guide to writing.  

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