I would advise all beginning writers to buy this book. Now.
I’ve been rereading it every few years for decades. I continue to reread it for her voice and her stories.
Her voice is irreverent and slightly paranoid.
And because I mentioned her stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one of them in this review. This is from the chapter “Set Design,” and it illustrates why you may need to consult an outside expert to get details right when describing the setting of your novel, or the background necessary to flesh out a character who happens to be a devoted gardener.
…I actually kept this one horrible plant alive for months, this huge potted thing. I don’t even know what it was, but it was about three feet tall, before its decline, and green in a sort of fake jolly way. I watered it, I cut off its dead leaves, and how did it repay me? By becoming Howard Hughes in his last days. It lost all this weight, it stopped going out. I came to believe that it would be requesting latex gloves soon, boxes of them, and boxes of Kleenex with which to cover its food between bites. I gave it water, sunlight, expensive plant food—what was I supposed to do, get it a psychiatrist? So I finally came to my senses, took it outside, and put it against the side of the house where I wouldn’t have to look at it. You are probably thinking it immediately began to flourish, but it didn’t. It died.
Sorry, you might have to be as old as me to get the reference to Howard Hughes. (If you look up “eccentric, reclusive billionaire” in the dictionary, you’ll find his scary picture.)
The two most valuable pieces of advice that I found on my first reading:
- From Chapter 2, Short Assignments: “…all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.” Writing a book is a major undertaking. It can seem insurmountable. To avoid being paralyzed with fear, just attack a reasonable goal each day.
- From Chapter 3, Shitty First Drafts: “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” Your initial draft will be horrible. Everyone’s is. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Just get it down on paper.
Here are some other gems that I’ve highlighted in my copy:
- “It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen.” This is about characterization. You learn about your characters as you watch what they want to do.
- A story about the need for trusted readers who will show you where you’ve gone astray:
I had a friend named Al who every so often took other people’s cats to the pound to be put down, because his friends couldn’t bear to do it themselves. They were cats who were, for one reason or another, like sickness or incontinence, a blight on the landscape. He didn’t care one way of the other about cats. He had an imaginary company, who business was having cats put to sleep, whose slogan was “The pussy must pay.” Let someone do this with your manuscripts, help you get rid of the twists in the plot that are never going to work no matter how hard you try or how many passes you make at it.
- From the chapter on Dialogue:
My students are miserable when they are reading an otherwise terrific story to the class and then they hit a patch of dialogue that is so purple and expositional that it reads like something from a childhood play by the Gabor sisters…I can see the surprise on my students’ faces, because the dialogue looked Okay on paper, yet now it sounds as if it were poorly translated from their native Hindi.
[You do know the Gabor sisters, right? Eva, Zsa Zsa, and Magda? No? I guess you weren’t born in the middle of the last century, then. And they were Hungarian, not Indian as the above excerpt seems to suggest.]
- From the chapter How Do You Know When You’re Done:
Of course, there will always be more you could do, but you have to remind yourself that perfection is the voice of the oppressor.
There’s an image I’ve heard people in recovery use—that getting all of one’s addictions under control is a little like putting an octopus to bed. I think this perfectly describes the process of solving various problems in your final draft.
- From the chapter on Publication: “I have gotten prepub reviews that said I was a treadmark on the underpants of life.”
The first edition of Bird by Bird came out in 1994. Other than some references that will be confounding to Millennials, the material about the writing life is as true today as it was twenty-some years ago. If you find Ms. Lamott entertaining, as I do, you will love this book.