Beauty and Human Excellence: Getting the Job Done, Bird by Bird.

Concert of Birds by Frans Snyders, circa 1630s. Via Wikimedia.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title of this book comes from a story of the author's brother who procrastinates all through the holidays on a project about various birds. The day before it is due, the lad sits at the table in despair - how is he to finish the project in time? His father, an author, sits down and says:
Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.
As I sit here writing this, I am killing bird #12 on my to-do list and it is sound advice. Anne Lamott tells her story of the writing life in this beautiful book on love, death, birth, tragedy, drugs, and learning to love oneself while agonising over writing. Just ask anyone who has completed a PhD and they can tell you all about it. 

A friend once described the process as if you were rowing a boat. While you left the shore, others were around and you could call out for guidance, but soon, you were on the wide expanse of ocean and there was only you and your inner world to guide you. It seems like years, and often it is, until you reach the other shore, at times not knowing where you are going or where you will land. But one day, you reach the other shore. Or you don't and you are bitter and dejected forever. But that is a different story. 

This work reminded me of parts of the 2015 movie The End of the Tour, the story of David Lipsky's (of Rolling Stone magazine) 5-day interview with American author, David Foster Wallace, except Lamott mentions some of her "I am not so famous" stories. But the sentiment is there. The agony of writing, the endless work, the endless self-doubt and self-loathing. Lamott tells her story in a way that is helpful, rather than whiney. 

I often think of Charlotte Bronte and Mary Shelley and how their important works seemed not quite right, whereas Lamott hits the nail on the head with a somewhat gendered perspective that is simultaneously relevant to all. Elements of drugs, religion, friendship, and working with editors will be familiar to many. 

Yet Lamott's story is beautiful in the Stoic sense of beauty being related to human excellence. Even if the only thing the reader takes away from this work that one can achieve great things "bird by bird", it is a worthy lesson.

View all my reviews