Anne Lamott Bird By Bird Essay

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.

This Wednesday: 14 writing tips from Anne Lamott.

Tomorrow night, I’ll interview writer Anne Lamott at Symphony Space here in New York City. I’m a longtime fan of her work, so am looking forward to hearing her speak about her writing and her process.

It's especially gratifying for me to do this interview, because years ago, when I was still in law school, Anne Lamott and I were both bridesmaids in my college roommate's wedding. I was so intimidated by her, a Real Writer, that I don't think I spoke two words to her the entire time. The intense discomfort I felt around writers was one clue that helped me realize that I wanted to be a writer, myself.

So, in honor of Anne Lamott, here’s a tips list summarizing, very briefly, some of the points she makes in her terrific book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

  1. Write regularly, whether you feel like writing or not, and whether you think what you're writing is any good or not.
  2. Give yourself short assignments. Keep it manageable so you don’t get overwhelmed.
  3. Write sh**ty first drafts. (I’m not being prissy about the word choice, just don’t want to get hung up in spam filters.) Don’t expect a piece of writing to flow perfectly out of your fingers on the first go. Of all the points she makes, many people seem to find this one the most helpful.
  4. Let the Polaroid develop; in other words, observe, watch, listen, stay in the moment, until you understand what you want to write about.
  5. Know your characters.
  6. Let the plot grow out of the characters.
  7. “If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing…it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately. You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right.”
  8. Figure out ways to jam the transmissions from Radio KFKD, the interior station feeding doubts and criticism into your brain. Especially about jealousy of other writers.
  9. Have pen and paper ready at all times. (She always carries an index card.)
  10. Call around. Ask for help.
  11. Start a writing group.
  12. Write in your own voice.
  13. Being published brings a quiet joy, but it doesn’t transform your life, and eventually you have to write again.
  14. “Devotion and commitment will be their own reward.”

One line from Bird by Bird was helpful to me recently. I’ve been feeling a bit panicky about whether I’m going to be able to figure out the structure for my next book; I’m always anxious about a project until I get my structure nailed down. I took heart from her admonition: “Try to calm down, get quiet, breathe, and listen.”

What strategies for writing have you found to be helpful? Or for getting yourself to sit down and work on any big project?

Summary: “Getting Started” and “Short Assignments”

Lamott emphasizes telling the truth and says it is a primary component of good writing. She advises her students to start by writing about their childhoods. If the enormity of this topic seems overwhelming, she suggests starting with memories of their first few years of school. However, the important thing is to just begin writing something and to capture the details of some event. If this doesn’t work, Lamott advises writing about a particular holiday. Ultimately, writing is simply a matter of sitting down and plunging in. Writers may suffer from insecurities, worries, and distractions, but it is crucial to continue to write and persist with faith, despite the obstacles the mind might throw at you.

Lamott emphasizes that something salvageable can often be found, even in a piece of bad writing. Writers must be open to the twists and turns their stories take, even if those twists and turns result in an entirely different story than the one they originally planned to write. Her students respond to Lamott’s writing advice by asking how they can find an agent. But Lamott continues to emphasize the actual process of writing rather than publication.

Lamott’s students are fixated on being published. She repeatedly cautions both her students and her readers that publication is not some magical solution that will rescue writers from the hardships of reality.

In “Short Assignments,” Lamott states that novice writers should always start with short assignments so they are not overwhelmed. Lamott then describes how she sits down to write each day and how she is utterly unfocused until her glance falls on the square, one-inch picture frame on her desk. The little picture frame reminds her to focus on just a small piece of the whole story. When a writer starts with a small focus and then widens it gradually, the story will come together more easily.

Lamott describes the advice her father gave to her brother when he was overwhelmed by a school project on birds. Her father told her brother to take it “bird by bird.” Along those same lines, Lamott advises her students to focus on small steps, rather than on the entire project.


In Part One, Lamott discusses her students’ response to her methods of teaching and suggests that her students are too concerned with getting published. Lamott is far more interested in teaching them how to write. Additionally, as she points out, there is no secret to publishing success.

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