Life Lessons in the Book Drop

| October 25, 2011

Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamont
Random House, 1994
PN147 .L315 1995

TC students have excellent taste in books, which I realize every time I empty the book drop. About a week ago I reached into the book drop and discovered an absolutely wonderful book about the craft of writing.  When I started telling my friend Melissa–who also works in the library–about the book, I said, “I found the most wonderful book about writing by…” and she interjected, “Anne Lamont? Is it Bird by Bird?”  Melissa and I found it the strangest cooincidence that she could guess the title with so little prompting, but it’s probably less an example of ESP and more a testament to how great the book is.  Are you entering a state of frenzied curiosity about this book yet?

Lamont is a novelist and creative writing teacher; she wrote the book to describe everything she knows about writing, so if you aren’t able to take her class, which most of us aren’t, then her book is the next best thing to a personal workshop.  And her advice is pitch-perfect, a wonderful blend of optimism and realism.  She’s particularly adept at explaining how it feels to sit at a desk NOT writing.  She describes her students’ writing block: “Almost all of them have been writing for a little while, some of them all of their lives. Many of them have been told over the years that they are quite good, and they want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work, why they have these wonderful ideas and then they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout–the delusions, hypochrondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the handwashing fixation, the Howard Hughes germ phobias.  And especially, the paranoia.”  (p.10)  And that, as you probably know from personal experience, is EXACTLY what it feels like to sit down and write. Especially the paranoia part–how did she know?  Is she watching right now?  No, Lamont’s just an intuitive self-analyst and a descriptive writer.  The book really is like a workshop, too–she proceeds through sections and stages of writing: getting started, first drafts, plot, character, and on to choosing which friends to share your drafts with and, eventually, when it’s ready, publication.  But don’t worry about publication before you’re ready, Lamont warns.  “The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get where you want to be that way, I tell them.” (p. 13)  She makes the argument that the accolades people include in their publishing fantasies–money, success, fame, personal glory–are not things you achieve with publications.  The only real gift is the act of writing itself.  And if the writing is very, very good, it will get published.  (Having worked in publishing I can confirm this is also absolutely true.)

The only bad news?  I have the book checked out!  But feel free to recall it from me; that’s why the recall system exists.  Seriously!

Other books about writing that are basically awesome:

The Situation and the Story / Vivian Gornick
PR756.A9 G67 2001 (at Butler and Barnard)

I Could Tell You Stories / Patricia Hampl
CT21 .H33 1999  (at Butler)

The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft / Robert S. Boynton.
PN4867 .N38 2005 (at Butler)