tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bird By Bird is a book about life as much as it is about writing

One of the nicest things I did in 2005 was read a book by Anne Lamott called “Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” This is a book about writing but I would encourage anyone to read it because it is filled with wisdom applicable to everyone, regardless of their vocation.

Lamott offers a lot of very good advice for writing, such as “good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is not said,” and “plot grows out of character… Characters should not serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up,” and “Novels ought to have hope…there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.”

Her advice gives us writers a lot to think about. She emphasizes the importance of the process of writing. She notes that so many people like the idea of getting published and don’t think much of actually writing. Most people like the idea of having written more than the idea of writing. But the fact is, a person doesn’t have a lot of control over whether they get published, only over whether they write. Lamott notes that getting published brings only a small measure of satisfaction that wears off relatively quickly, while writing brings a great sense of satisfaction that cannot be taken away from you.

But even more enjoyable than Lamott’s advice about writing are her observations that apply to life in general. Consider these little gems:

“My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things.”

“To be a great writer [and I would say, a great person], you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care… A writer always tries to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.”

“If you don’t believe what you are saying, there is no point in saying it.”

“To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass –- seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.”

Lamott quotes Annie Dillard, another great writing instructor with something to say about life: “Day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more.” That’s a philosophy that requires a certain amount of faith. Lamott takes the idea further and says: “You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing…There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published but there is in learning to be a giver.”

Real love is something you give without expecting anything back, and that is why writing is a good metaphor for love. Writing does require you to give and give, and it is rare that you get much back for it. People who write for years don’t do it because they get something for it, but because they are happy to give something to it. That’s a lot like love.

In paperback, Lamott’s book is 227 pages; it’s an easy read, partly because she writes with a sense of humor that I haven’t found in a lot of other serious books. I consider Bird By Bird to be a real treasure and I will keep a copy close to me and re-read it every now and then for affirmation about my love for writing and my love for life.

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