Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Book Review) ~ BitterSweetLife

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (Book Review)

Anne Lamott is the type of writer that people tend to either love or hate. For me, she was also one of those authors that I always meant to read but never got around to it. However, even the best procrastinators have a limit to their craft.

Now that I've finally read Lamott for myself, I get her lightning rod effect. I am also prepared to eschew* the extremes of love and hate and tell you why I was moderately impressed with Lamott's Bird by Bird.

This book is written with the intent to get the naked, shivering, neurotic person into the turbulent waters of writing--flailing around with a sense of joy and maybe direction. Lamott works from the gutsy but odds-on premise that if you have the burning desire to unburden your soul via the written word, you are probably, to some extent, emotionally unhinged. I can think of worse working assumptions.

However, if you'd describe yourself as a stolid, steady-on, unruffled hombre without the slightest inclination to rail violently against the universe, this book is absolutely not for you.

Anne Lamott gives writers permission to upend their minds like a barrel of monkeys and later build the critters into messy, dangling chains of meaning that can be hung from plot points. She is that happily overwrought, slightly stereotypical character with dreadlocks who urges you to just find yourself, dear, and let your soul hang out. Lamott is born to dispense this kind of advice, and she does so in a raw, liberating fashion.

This approach works very well because Anne Lamott is perfectly willing to use herself as a datum, a messy point of reference. She writes with a salty, self-deprecating voice that exudes empathy and a loose, give-it-your-best-shot confidence. She has a disarming knack for capturing and distilling human nature at its best and worse, and she's no slouch at navigating the writing world either. Bird by Bird succeeds at being a useful, eye-opening Book About Writing--which is no small achievement.

I haven't read many Books About Writing because I have the cocky, lingering suspicion than I can learn more by writing my own stuff than by reading about someone else's. Now I've been proven wrong at least a couple times: Annie Dillard's The Writing Life (review) sets the standard for insight and inspiration, in my opinion, but Lamott is a close second.

Overall, I'm about to hand Bird by Bird a glowing recommendation, but with a few caveats. First, I don't care for the haphazard way Lamott characterizes God as he, she, it, whatever--but you'd be crazy to read Lamott for her theology. Second, this book will be helpful to some types of writers but not others. Donald Miller loves Lamott, and if you read them both, you'll see why: they both emphasize confessional, write-what-you-feel creativity. Finally, Lamott has a potty mouth and does what she can to preserve this fact for posterity.

** With that said, Bird by Bird gets two stars--well worth your time--and good for a place on the Master Book List. Lamott brings a vivid and earthy mind to the writing task, and assuming you have a creative bent, it's hard to see how her book could fail to strike some sparks.

*Any day when you can eschew something, that was a good day. I'll also utilize this asterisk to give credit to Amelia and Ruth, who made this review possible by getting on my case so I finally read Bird by Bird.

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Benjamin said...

"Lamott has a potty mouth and does what she can to preserve this fact for posterity."

This pops out as the perfect way to describe mainline rap artists, certain comedians and other connoisseurs of cuss words.

Quite the eye-catching, grin-drawing epitaph, suren. Certainly makes me laugh. ;)

littlepeace said...

Interesting to read your take on Bird by Bird. I certainly would agree with your points about her "saltiness" and unusual theology.

Ariel said...

Thanks, Benjamin. Yeah, it's one thing to cuss vehemently and eloquently in person--quite another to integrate it with your artistry on the written page. ;)

@ littlepeace, thanks for recommending the book to me!


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife