One of the books periodically cited as a key primer for aspirant writers is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, penned by Anne Lamott and first published in 1994. It’s one of the few writing manuals ever to be immortalized on film – something that as far as I’m aware never happened to Stephen King. Two decades later, it still ranks highly in many writers’ estimation and many creative writing curricula. But how well has it worn, and what if anything, in the age of social media and self-publishing, needs updating in it?

One section that still makes huge sense for the blogging, Tweeting generations, is Anne Lamott’s first chapter on “Short Assignments.” She writes: “All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. That is all I have to bite off for the time being.” And she states that she does in fact have such a picture frame on her desk to remind her of this, to curtail any tendency to be too intimidated by the great task ahead. Indeed, the book’s title, derived from the advice that Anne Lamott’s father gave her older brother, overwhelmed by a school report assignment on birds, to take it “bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird,” typifies this whole approach.

Less familiar and less welcome perhaps for some whose writing reflexes have been conditioned by the shoot-from-the-hip practices of social media is Anne Lamott’s advice on “Shitty First Drafts,” where she cautions: “For me, and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” This brings in the whole craft-based writerly approach of honing to perfection, rather than some post-Romantic idea of spontaneous divine inspiration, as well as – God forbid – the specter of sheer hard work. “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts,” she warns. “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 decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

That may sound painful and even unpleasant, but it also definitely sounds like the way to create prose with a bite. There’s also the advice constantly being given to eager and parsimonious self-publishers, to engage “someone to read your drafts,” as well as how to get over writer’s block, and other handy standbys like index cards (although for many, these will have been replaced by Evernote or some equivalent).

Above all, why Bird by Bird still flies is that precious little of it is about getting published: Most of it is about the sheer act of writing, and the mindset you bring to that – which is where the “instructions on writing and life” part comes in. Only four of its chapters concern the wider audience or market, and only one of them is directly about “Publication.” Hence, there’s precious little there to date. Perhaps more about self-promotion and marketing could be helpful, but that leaves out the rather more important question of having something to promote in the first place. And there, the golden eggs are obviously still being delivered bird by bird.


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