Book notes
Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Read in December 2020

"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life."

Independent from the outcome, the act of writing turns out to be the best part. It's like discovering that you needed a tea ceremony instead of the tea itself. The process itself is the reward, not the outcome.

Part 1: Writing

Where to start?

  • Tell the truth
  • Childhood memories
  • Big events, gatherings, including every detail that you can remember.

You sit down at the same the every day, kick your subconscious, and hold an imaginary gun to your head to make yourself stay at the desk.

The obsession -of looking at your own writing- may keep you awake, or the self loathing may cause you to fall into a narcoleptic coma before dinner.

To some of us, books are as important as anything else in the world. They are full of things we don't get in real life. They make us understand what's up with the world, and teach us how to live and die.

Short assignments

"Take it bird by bird". The story of Anne's brothers' 3-month long assignment due next day. Her father was a writer and his suggestion was to take the book of birds in small chunks.

Use a frame to narrow down your perspective. You don't have to solve every problem. You need to see "just as far as your headlights, while you are driving at night."

Shitty first drafts

Almost all good writing begins with a terrible first draft. You need to start at some point. Facing the blank page is a universal constant.

In your first draft, just write down everything you want, no rules nor judgment. No-one will see it. You can do the editing in the next day. Then it becomes the second draft. You try to say what you say more accurately in your second draft. Then the third one comes, it's the "dental" draft, which you check every tooth.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life. It's the main obstacle between you and your first draft.

Writing a first draft is very much like watching a polaroid develop. You can't know what the picture is going to look like until it finishes developing.

Developing a character:

  • How would they behave?
  • What words would they use while telling a story?
  • What holds the ectoplasm together? What are this person's routines, beliefs.

Imagining your characters playing on a movie is a good way to create vivid and continuous dreams.

Drama is the way of holding the reader's attention. Setup (meet and greet), buildup (stuff happens), and payoff (answers the questions).

For the climax, there must be a healing (union, reclamation), killing (real or fake), or a domination.

Alice Adams's short story formula:

  • Action: compelling, we want to know more.
  • Background: what was going before. how they came together?
  • Development: develop characters, tell what they care about.
  • Climax: things became different for the main characters.
  • Ending: what they are left with, who are they now?

Tips for writing dialogs that resonate:

  • Sound your words – read them out loud. Listen and learn how "real" people talk, and make your dialogs sound natural.
  • Remember that you should be able to identify each character by what they say. They should sound like themselves, not like you.
  • An helpful way to develop the identity: put two characters who avoid each other into an elevator. Then let the elevator get stuck. Supercharged atmospheres gets the thing going.

You must learn from people from people, not from what you read. The readings should confirm what you observed.

Part 2: The Writing Frame

Writing is all about learning to pay attention and to communicate what's going on. Non-judgmental and deep observation is the key to develop a good practice of the writing a frame.

Your writings should carry a piece of essence of your values. If you don't believe in what you're saying, then there's no point in saying it.

Listen to your inner brocoli. As Seth Godin also says in The Practice, the traditional way to deal with sceptic thoughts is to shut them down. It leads to a lack of self-esteem on us, and we lose our voice. We, however, should listen to our inner brocoli instead of oppressing the mind.

Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then dehypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.

Part 3: Help Along The Way

One of the worst feelings in the world is to forget something on your mind even though you were sure you would remember it when you get back home. But you don't. It's hard to accept this humiliating defeat against a problem which you know a perfect solution: taking notes.

Call people for research (Anne's wine depot story).

Writing groups

It's good to gather with a group with the same intentions for peer review and motivation.

Writers tend to be so paranoid about talking about their work because no one, including us, really understands how it works. But it can help a great deal if you have someone you can call when you need a pep talk, someone you have learned to trust, someone who is honest and generous and who won’t jinx you. When you’re feeling low, you don’t want anyone even to joke that you may be in some kind of astrological strike zone where you’ll be for the next seven years. On a bad day you also don’t need a lot of advice. You just need a little empathy and affirmation. You need to feel once again that other people have confidence in you. The members of your writing group can often offer just that.

The writer's block

It's not a block, no one is preventing you from the act of writing. It's emptiness. Not being able to find ideas to put on paper. Acceptance is a constructive way to deal with it. Just take a break?

Everything you need is in your head and memories, in all that your senses provide, in all that you've seen and thought and absorbed. There in your unconscious, where the real creation goes on.

In the meantime, you better get some fresh air. Your unconscious can't work when you are breathing down its neck.

Part 4: Publications and Other Reasons To Write

Writing as a present. Anne wrote two of her books as a present to close people in her life who were going to die. They both got the chance of reading them before they die, knowing that it'll be a part of their immortality. Another motivation was to write those memoirs to help people who are going through simulator situations.

The function of freedom is to free someone else. IF you are no longer wracked, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else. But take out the self-indulgent parts after the first draft.

The truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. You can't write ot of someone elses dark place.

You can't find your dark places if you don't face with the suffering. We don't have much truth to express unless we stop avoiding anger, grief, and damage.

Finding voice

Borrowing some till you find your own is OK. But remember that your truths are true only if you say with your own voice.


Resonates with "generosity" in The Practice.

There is no cosmic importance to getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver. Giving is going to be it's own reward.

Publication or awards should not be the primary reason for writing. If you were not enough the gold medal, you won't be enough with it.

Part 5: The Last Class

Recommendations on repeat:

  • Write about your childhood
  • Write about the challenging periods of your life, when you felt things so deeply.
  • Don't be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting anymore time how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your work done.

Becoming a writer can change your life as a reader. You will read with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing how hard writing is.

Why do I write?

  • Empathy
  • Share my experience

The society to which we belong seems to be dying. I don't mean to sound dramatic, but clearly the dark side is rising.

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