This is a brutally honest account of someone who lives and breathes writing. It is part autobiography and part lessons on how to become a writer, by an established writer who actually teaches a writing class. “One of the things that happens when you give yourself permission to start writing is that you start thinking like a writer”, Anne Lamott says. “You start seeing everything as material.”
And how to process that material is the absolute gem of this book, gem that has helped numerous writers along the years, gem that has made this book a go-to reference for writing even 25th anniversary edition later.
The first advice from her to the students is to write on, write everything from scratch, let it all out without worrying about structure, grammar, or even plot (that’s for phase 2, the editing part). The first draft of everything is shitty, as they say, and according to Lamott that’s part of the important process where ideas sporadically appear in our mind, and we write them all down in a messy first draft. This is why she puts notebooks in every room in her house, she even brings with her a notepad and a pen when walking the dog, so that any thoughts and ideas that spring up in her mind can be quickly jotted down and will not disappear.
Lamott then elaborates that we should not worry about perfection, because being a perfectionist prevents us for writing the first shitty draft in the first place, it puts so much pressure on us to produce them perfectly right from the start, which is impossible.
Which brings us to the next lesson. “Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop”, Lamott says. “You can’t – and, in fact, you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing. First you just point at what has your attention and take the picture.” Indeed, we could not have had any clue of what the story would look like when we first started, we just knew that there was something about this particular material that compelled us, and we stayed with it and focus on it long enough for it to show us what it was about.
And when the story has started to flow, nothing holds a story together better than a likeable narrator. As Lamott remarks, “If your narrator is someone whose take on things fascinates you, it isn’t really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time. I could watch John Cleese or Anthony Hopkins do dishes for about an hour without needing much else to happen. Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal.”
Lamott then spends the majority of the book providing beautifully written stories from her own life and her students’ life to illustrate what happens with the writing process in the real world. How mistakes were made and corrected, how forming a writing partnership can works wonder, and how the odds of our materials getting published is not really favourable, but why it does not really that matter.
Because one thing that I noticed about her writing class is that all the habits, tools, mentality, and attitude on writing are also good tools for approaching life in general. And in this sense, writing is almost therapeutical or can serve as a good habit for life, regardless of the result of the craft.
Perhaps the best analogy of her approach on writing and how to live our lives comes in the story of the origin of the title of this book: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.””