Bird by Bird :Novel Summary: Part Two : The Writing Frame of Mind

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Part Two Summary: The Writing Frame of Mind


Summary of “Looking Around”

Writing is paying attention to what is around you. If people are suffering, you find meaning in it, but only if you are respectful. The writer stands apart and sees people as they really are. To do that one must know oneself first, in order to recognize others. One must have self-compassion and a feeling of oneness with all creatures.


Commentary on “Looking Around”

Lamott is recommending “compassionate detachment” (p. 99) and reverent openness to the world. She quotes the Persian mystic Rumi about God hiding in all things. This chapter speaks about finding ways around the rational mind to ecstasy, oneness, and compassion—a spiritual frame of mind when writing, though she does not speak specifically of religion or spiritual practices.


Summary of “The Moral Point of View”

Sometimes writing is not worth finishing because there is nothing passionate or ethical at its core. Telling the truth is the writer's job, even if it is the truth of ordinary life. Truthful moments unfold in layers, not in one-liners. It takes time to show the deeper drama of human life. Most great literature  depicts characters in an ethical light. What helps and hurts life is moral territory. We like characters who “let us see that there is in fact some sort of moral compass still at work here” (p. 105). A moral position does not mean a message but a sense of caring, of finding the good in life to fight for.


Commentary on “The Moral Point of View”

Though the good and bad characters can both be fascinating, it is when a character finds his or her way in the dark woods by a “shaft of light” (p. 106) that a pleasing miracle happens for the reader, to learn that good still triumphs over evil. It may be about the war between good and evil within ourselves, and seeing the better part win. An author achieves a great moral position just by “keeping one's heart open in the presence of suffering” (p. 107). Lamott is a Christian but does not advocate writing dogma or slogans. Her moral point of view embraces larger territory, the universal sense of compassion and good will to others.


Summary of “Broccoli”

The author tells a joke by Mel Brooks about listening to your broccoli. It means when you don't know what to do in your writing, be still, and listen to the voice within. We are used to being guided by the rational mind, but it cannot tell you how to write. You get in tune with your intuition by trusting yourself, like dancing.


Commentary on “Broccoli”

Lamott tells how to get quiet and listen to the intuition when writing. Writing is not about control, and this scares many beginning writers. The imagination can be wilder than one's social self. Listen to the crazy advice of the broccoli. It may be just a quiet murmur from the unconscious.


Summary of “Radio Station KFKD”

Radio station “K-F**ked” (p. 116) playing in your head is a great obstacle to writing. It can vacillate in its messages between “self-aggrandizement” and “self-loathing” (p. 116). Lamott says this radio station is always on when she sits to write, so she says a prayer to write what wants to be written and stay out of the way. Rituals of any kind, she says, are a sign to the rational mind to give up, and time for the unconscious to come forward. Altars, candles, or any other little ritual one likes will help to put one in the writing frame of mind. Deep breathing is another technique. If the critic voice kicks in during writing, or you are interrupted by a phone call, let go until you do not hear KFKD anymore.


Commentary on “Radio Station KFKD”

Lamott's lack of inhibition in her writing extends even to this writing manual where she does not mind using obscene four-letter words to make her point. In this chapter and some others, she calls on her experience as a Christian when she is in a difficult place. She explains a time when she was losing her self-esteem and pulled out a book on prayer from her purse that said “The Gulf Stream will flow through a straw provided the straw is aligned to the Gulf Stream, and not at cross purposes with it” (p. 121). In terms of writing she saw it meant: we need to align ourselves “with the river of the story, the river of the unconscious” (p. 121) pouring through us, and ignore KFKD.


Summary of “Jealousy”

Jealousy is a writer's constant hazard. Somebody else gets published or famous or earns more money, and you do not. It is hard not to despise the successful person and see him or her as a rival. She points out that money and fame does not guarantee a writer happiness. They are under pressure and lonely.  Lamott offers the wisdom of trying to live as though dying. “Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things” (p. 125).


Commentary on “Jealousy”

Lamott includes many personal anecdotes about feeling jealousy and how hard it is to make these feelings go away.  You can think others are better writers, the implication being that they are better people or accepted, while you are left out. We live in a competitive culture, but it is essential not to let oneself be poisoned by this destructive emotion.

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