Resource Recommendation: Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

by Burke Nixon, PWC Lecturer

The strange thing about so many of the books that offer writing advice is that the books themselves aren’t very fun to read. Most books on writing inevitably adopt the rhetorical distance of the expert; the style might be readable and even graceful, but it’s still impersonal. They wouldn’t ever fit Holden Caulfield’s description of his favorite books in The Catcher in the Rye: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” As Holden himself notes, “That doesn’t happen much, though.” But at least one book of writing advice, in my opinion, meets that criteria: Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Lamott’s book is as funny and personal and meaningful as a great novel. She shares vivid and moving portraits of her family and friends and her own struggles in writing and life, and throughout the book she writes in a sharp and hilariously deadpan way about some of our worst tendencies as writers and humans. It’s a book on writing that is actually fun and meaningful to read, while also offering some really helpful ideas along the way. 

Lamott offers some technical advice about writing, but more often—and more helpfully—she offers psychological advice. Bird By Bird is the book to read if you struggle with the tyranny of the blank computer screen or empty page. Rice students are often perfectionists, which can be a good thing in many circumstances, but not when you’re at the beginning of a writing project. In an early chapter titled “Perfectionism,” Lamott says that this tendency “will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California).” Later, she calls perfectionism a “mean, frozen form of idealism” and notes that “messes are the artist’s true friend.” In other words, imagining you have to write the perfect paper or paragraph or sentence on the first try will only make you feel angry and frozen; better to get a messy draft on paper instead and go from there. 

She addresses the magic of these messy drafts in a brief chapter called “Shitty First Drafts.” Here’s what she tells us about such drafts: “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” To think that even professional writers write wonderful first drafts, she says, is “the fantasy of the uninitiated…Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.” Lamott’s idea of the “shitty first draft” or the “down draft” is one of the most freeing suggestions in the book, especially if you suffer from Chronic Writer’s Perfectionism. Instead of spending the first hour or two (or ten) writing and deleting one sentence, spend that time just getting something down on paper and then fix it up from there. 

I’ve found, though, that Lamott’s anti-perfectionism advice is sometimes easier to share with others than to actually practice. We’re all impatient; we all want to find shortcuts to greatness; we all want to get it right the first time. But here’s something I’ve learned (or that I think I’ve learned) from my own struggles to embrace messy first drafts: the point is not to write a “shitty” first draft; the point is to write a first draft that you know is a first draft. The first draft is the low pressure draft. Or at least it should be. Trying to write a final draft on your first draft will only lead to a lot of wasted time and frustration. 

Bird By Bird is full of plenty of other good suggestions, both practical and psychological. Although the book generally focuses on creative writing, most of Lamott’s advice, from giving yourself short assignments to using notecards to getting someone to read your drafts, obviously works for academic writing as well. Try to sample “Perfectionism” and “Shitty First Drafts” online and you’ll see not only how helpful they are, but how the book’s appeal goes beyond the instructions it offers. Then go get a copy of the whole book. Flip to any random page of Bird By Bird and you’ll find not just good advice, but the voice and personality and human details of a terrific friend.

Burke Nixon received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Mississippi, where he was a John and Renee Grisham Fellow in Fiction. A native Houstonian, he began his teaching career at the high school level in HISD as a Teach for America corps member, and has also taught in the Intensive English Program at Houston Community College’s Central Campus. His primary academic interests are the short story, literary nonfiction, and composition and critical thinking pedagogy.