I’d never found a book on writing that spoke to, let alone one that sat me down, passed me a glass of wine and made me laugh out loud, until I found Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. I only wish I’d read it sooner. Like three books ago sooner.
Bird By Bird isn’t a how-to write manual. It’s more of a a how-not-to-go-mad while you do it book.
Actually Anne Lamott’s premise is that you’re probably already mad, and that’s fine, and from there it aims to show you how you can be both mad and productive as a writer.
Although I’m massively jealous of mates who read this before they wrote their first book, I’m not sure it would have made as much sense to me at that time.
I would have thought:
But why the angst? Writing is fun!
Why would anyone struggle with ideas? I have a million!
And, professional jealousy? Come on! I’m not that sort of person.
Five years after getting my agent I read this book with way too much self-recognition.
Writers tend to be emotional and contrary; that’s what gives us the mental flexibility to put ourselves into the minds of others while we plot their torture, failures and occasional, begrudging triumphs. But, under the pressure of producing good work, we can too easily become our own worst enemies.
Lamott’s metaphor for the way we do this is an unhelpful radio station called K-Fucked that plays in our heads 24/7. Through one ear comes a stream of self-aggrandisement (you’re a brilliant writer, it’s just that no one understands because they’re all idiots), and through the other the rap songs of self-loathing (no, you’re the idiot, you talentless fraud). As if writing weren’t hard enough anyway, the toxic combination of the two can make it difficult to hear your characters and tell their story, let alone enjoy the process. Although this tends to be a chronic condition, don’t worry, this book does offer ways to live with it.
Bird By Bird is seriously funny, and the chapter on jealousy is probably the one that made me laugh the most, but this is a serious topic which is hardly ever talked about. ‘Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and the most degrading,’ she says. And she’s right. No matter how much we love our writer friends (and I do, I really do, you sickeningly talented bunch of bastards), there’s a fair chance that many of them will become more successful than you. (And this book was published in 1980, way before social media was invented; now you can hate several hundred people you don’t even know just by scrolling through your Twitter feed.)
You might, according to Lamott, want to throw yourself down the back stairs when this happens. But while she tells a really entertaining story about breaking a friendship with someone who became unbearable with success, she also comes up with a few solutions, including to use your jealousy as material. Because uncomfortable emotions are, of course, the most interesting to explore.
There’s a lot about the actual writing, but this is book is subtitled Instructions on Writing and Life, and it’s at the intersection of the two that it’s the most interesting. There will be days, Lamott says, when, ‘you will read what you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit.’ But that’s not a bad thing.
No, really it’s not.
Understanding the purpose of what she calls the Shitty First Draft is possibly the most important lesson I took from this book; the idea that getting it wrong is good because it takes you one step further towards getting it right is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
But what that I love most about this book is the message that in order to be content as a writer you have to shelve your anxieties about failure, your jealousies, your dreams of fame and fortune, and remember why you did it in the first place. She recounts that most of her professional writer friends are not particularly happy. In fact they go around with ‘haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs.’ But when they are working ‘they feel better and more alive than at any other time.’ And that, I suspect, is what it’s all about.
Nikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist and went to a convent school in Cambridge where she was taught by real nuns in habits. She is the author of Who Framed Klaris Cliff? and Swan Boy.