Bird by Bird : Theme
Writing is a Process
One of Lamott's key themes from her writing classes is that writing is a process. It is not an instant accomplishment where someone sits down and writes a finished piece in one sitting. She creates a portrait of herself as a writer throughout the book as an example of what it takes her to write: how she gets ideas, how she drafts, how she revises, how she gets feedback, how she revises again, and finally how she publishes. She uses some of her class exercises in the book to get people started, such as writing about one's childhood. Lamott is known for her humor and uses it to puncture false beliefs about writing, such as publishing as a way to solve your problems in life. She is not afraid to show her own false starts and to demonstrate that there are no mistakes in writing, just better drafts where the material gets clearer the longer you play with it. There is nothing wrong in experimenting and then changing something when it does not work. She advocates having trusted readers of one's work for good feedback. One should expect to revise and to get feedback.
Writing takes practice and commitment. A certain regular amount of time has to be devoted to it. Writer's block just means one should take a break until the juices are flowing again. Although one can write on a schedule, the same quality is not always coming out like making a batch of cookies from a recipe. Some days there is greater inspiration and productivity. These are the rhythms a writer learns to cope with and use. Even during a dry period, a writer can produce short bits, say, 300 words a day. Some material will be used and other material will be thrown out. Sometimes it takes two or three mediocre pages to get to one good page of writing. Writing as a process is one of the secrets of successful writing, and it helps a beginner to feel that one does not need to be a genius to begin. Every kind of person can write for any number of reasons, because it is an enjoyable and natural part of living. Writing can help us clarify our lives and show us where we are going. Publishing might be the fate of some of our pieces, but it is not the benefit of the writing process itself. Most of our writing will not be published, but it can be enjoyed and shared, or just part of keeping our own balance.
Writing as a Spiritual Exercise
Lamott is known as a spiritual writer and practicing Christian. She combines the topics of writing and spiritual growth. In fact, writing can be a means to spiritual growth. Writing takes guts because it is a risk to the ego, and yet, it is worth it in terms of self-discovery and in creating something others can enjoy. Lamott is an example of speaking the truth that is outrageous or beyond convention. Life and writing are part of the same path for her, manifesting the same truths. All great writing comes from a place of truth deeper than the socially conditioned ego. She mentions that writing comes from the unconscious where creating is done. She is not necessarily speaking of Freud's concept of the unconscious, with conflicts and horrors in it, but where people have submerged their honest selves for fear they will offend. They must risk finding out the best and worst of themselves. Fictional characters can do this work on behalf of everyone, because all the characters, villains or heroes, are part of every individual psyche. The author who has compassion for these characters learns compassion for him or herself. A writer stays open to the story and characters as a way of staying open to life.
Lamott insists on the moral and spiritual worth of a writer's work. “Novels ought to have hope,” she says (p. 51). They are the clear stories of survival that inspire others. As readers we want to know what life is all about, the important issues about being human beyond the grind of daily life. Every author worth reading has gained some wisdom in life worth passing on to others. One topic interesting to Lamott in her illustrations is the transformation of tragedy into joy or fellowship. She talks of writing an article on the Special Olympics, for instance, at first seeing only the heartache of disabled people, but finally understanding the participants had made a victory out of their lives. Writing she says, is “our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong” (p. 19). She often uses some spiritual truth as the answer to a writing problem, such as how to deal with the inevitable jealousy of the success of other writers. That is an opportunity to drop ego and gain perspective. In another example, she saw a movie about people who were dealing with AIDS and saw “the amazing fortitude of people going through horror with grace” (p. 129). She often advises people to write as though they are dying, and to learn lessons from dying people who are stripped down to the essentials of who they are. This is how writers need to write also, as if there is no tomorrow, and they have nothing at stake except to tell the truth as they perceive it.
One bit of advice came to her from a religious book from her church. She had been hearing internal negative and critical voices about her writing and was discouraged. The church book 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” (qtd. On pg. 121). This made her realize she had to line herself up with the larger source of creativity, instead of to mental negativity.
The Kind of People Who Are Writers
The opening biographical section is interesting for the portrait of the author's father, who was an author and inspired his daughter to follow in his footsteps. He was an independent thinker with his own writer's lifestyle that embarrassed the daughter as she was growing up, but later made her proud. She tells the incident of discovering sexual content in his first novel and feeling her father wrote pornography. He drank alcohol and hung out with other writers who drank. After he wrote an article in the local paper criticizing the town, Lamott thought she would die of shame until her brother showed her their father had become the local hero for speaking out. In high school, Lamott learned that other people valued those who could speak for the common experience of all. The other kids wanted her to tell the story of what happened at the school events. She was one who could give meaning and significance to what happened.
The author tries to create a loving and supportive view of the positive contribution of writers to their communities and families. It is not just about money, fame, and prestige. Writing is a service to others. She gives the example of offering writing as a gift to the dying or as a tribute to those who have died to help the survivors. Often a writer gives voice to the voiceless members of society and points out social injustice. She learned even as a child that a writer can create alternative worlds and solutions to problems.