Bird by Bird :Novel Summary: Part Three : Help Along the Way

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Part Three Summary: Help Along the Way


Summary of “Index Cards”

Lamott uses notes and index cards to jot down bits she will use sometime. She keeps cards and pens all over so they will be at hand wherever she is. She writes down descriptions, ideas, and bits of dialogue. We think we will remember our insights, but often they are lost unless written down immediately. As a writer, you see everything as possible material.


Commentary on “Index Cards”

The author shows examples of what her index cards were like, sometimes two words that would recall a memory or a scene. The scent of lemon once reminded her of a scene with her aunt from childhood where she could visualize the pattern of the linoleum floor of the kitchen. Along with these memories came the feelings of the scene, a vignette that could become a fruitful idea for a story.


Summary of “Calling Around”

Many people have information they will share with you. A writer can spend too much time alone, so taking a break to call someone for information about something is a good idea. Lamott once called a winery to ask the name of the wire over the cork on a bottle of wine and learned it was officially called the wire hood. The man also told her a lot about vineyards.


Commentary on “Calling Around”

Although writing is mostly a solitary endeavor, one can reach out to others for their knowledge and experience. Today, one is used to Googling this kind of information on the Internet, but her tip about contacting someone in person for knowledge is still valuable in that one taps into a richer context when a person with lived experience shares it.


Summary of “Writing Groups”

At some point a writer needs feedback on the writing. A good place to find that is at a workshop or creative writing class, or start your own writing group that meets regularly to share and discuss work in progress.


Commentary on “Writing Groups”

Lamott illustrates why some people do not want to go to a group. She tells how a new author can be savagely criticized by those who are better writers or insensitive to feelings. The best kind of feedback is to praise the good parts and to point out where something does not work. As a teacher, she suggests ways to fix weak spots. It is never right to be discouraging to another. Some conferences are very competitive, so consider starting your own group with writers at about your own level. A writing group can offer affirmation and encouragement.


Summary of “Someone to Read Your Drafts”

Another suggestion is to find someone who can read your whole draft and give you an honest assessment. Before giving it to a person, assess the person's suitability as your critic. Lamott always shows her work to one or two trusted readers before turning something in to an editor. Though criticism is hard to take, one needs an objective reader who can help with fine-tuning a piece to completion. A good reader should be someone you admire and who is not out to put you down, or who is accomplished enough to offer helpful advice.


Commentary on “Someone to Read Your Drafts”

The author points out that if you get a reader who devastates you in a critique, you should consider whether that person should be in your life. It can feel like betrayal when you exhibit your deepest self to someone in your writing, and there is no respect. Finding a good reader is like finding the right date or spouse. On the other hand, never fear to write because you don't want to be criticized. The writer has to be willing to risk and be open to revision.


Summary of “Letters”

When you get stuck, try telling part of your story or your character's in a letter to someone. This is an indirect way to look at your work that is not threatening. Material can come out then that will not be sabotaged by anxiety.


Commentary on “Letters”

As usual, the author tells stories about her own work where she was able to get past a block by writing a letter first. From the letter she got the material to do the article or fix part of the book.


Summary of “Writer's Block”

With writer's block, one is in a barren state where the writing will not come out. Lamott assures that it will happen to you. Sometimes it happens when you evaluate what you have recently written as bad, preventing you from wanting to try to go further. Or, it can happen that you have a dry spell. These moments test your faith and courage as a writer. It is not so much a block as emptiness. Sometimes just accepting that you are in a non-productive period will release the tension so you can be creative again. If the writing is bad, it is still helpful to commit to writing 300 words a day just to keep in practice.


Commentary on “Writer's Block”

At various places, Lamott mingles advice about spiritual life and practice with writing. Here, she brings up the death of her friend, Pammy, from cancer. The doctor told her to watch her friend as she was dying because it would teach her how to live. When the author cannot get work done, she remembers to live as if she is dying. This gives the reminder to live in “real presence” (p. 179). Writing can bring on real crises of faith. It reminds you that you cannot control either your writing or your life. You must commit to finishing your pieces but surrender. Everything you need is in yourself.

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