Bird by Bird is a novel written by Anne Lamott.
- Anne Lamott - The author and narrator of the book. A former drug addict and alcoholic, Lamott has become an author, teacher, mother, and devout Christian. She is heavily influenced by her author father's bohemian lifestyle. She believes that writing can help create community and lead to personal satisfaction. She also believes that writers are an integral part of society and must have a moral perspective
- Lamott's Father - Anne Lamott's father. Mr. Lamott's career as a writer inspires Anne Lamott to write; his illness inspires her first book. When he develops brain cancer, Anne Lamott begins to write her first successful manuscript. He dies a year before the book is published.
- Sam - The author's son. Sam is three at the time Bird by Bird is written. Precocious and intelligent, he often speaks his mind, and his words inspire his mother. Lamott frequently mentions him.
- Elizabeth McKee - Lamott's father's agent. McKee is unimpressed by Lamott's early work but ultimately she champions Lamott's first novel.
- Pam - Lamott's best friend. Lamott describes Pam's struggle with breast cancer. Because Pam faces death, she can sift through the monotony of daily life and find the basic essence of experience. Lamott uses her writing to memorialize Pam, whose cancer eventually kills her.
- Rebecca - Pam's daughter. Because of Rebecca, Pam is particularly distressed about her impending death. Rebecca is also Sam's friend, and the two often play together.
- The Editor - An unnamed New York editor who initially turns down a draft of Lamott's book. When Lamott finally gives him an oral explanation of the plot she has in mind, he suggests that she work from that summary instead of from the original draft.
- Carpenter - A fellow author who is close to Lamott. Their books are published on the same date, and they provide support for each other. Like Lamott, Carpenter can be cynical about life, but he believes that the most important part of life is establishing connections with those around you.
- Terry - A friend of Lamott's. Terry thinks it is more important to act than to be frozen with fear about the potential consequences of an action.
- The Successful Writer Friend - A fellow writer whose success and insensitivity regarding money annoy Lamott and make her jealous. Eventually, Lamott comes to terms with her own feelings and tells the friend that she must sever ties with her.
- Lamott's Aunt - A relative who features in one of Lamott's childhood memories. Lamott recalls how her aunt, who was going through a painful divorce, tried out a lemonade machine. Her efforts were unsuccessful, but the children sensed her distress and drank the lemonade anyway.
- The Bad-Writing Student - A writing student who attempts an experimental writing piece in Lamott's class. Another student brutally criticizes the experimental piece. The student is hurt by the criticism but does not respond.
- The Critical Writing Student - The student who cruelly criticizes the bad-writing student's piece. A good writer, she believes the experimental piece has no redeeming value and wants to know why everyone is pretending otherwise. She is praised for her honesty, although Lamott notes that she didn't have to be so harsh.
- The Depressed Writer from the Writer's Group - A former writing student who tells Lamott she is worried that the other members of her group are laughing at her and meeting behind her back. She finds motivation to write when a truly depressed member of the writing group calls her about his problems.
- Tom - A former alcoholic and gay Jesuit priest. Tom often talks with Lamott about the feeling of liberation he felt when he stopped drinking. Lamott often turns to him for advice and inspiration.
- The Pastor - The pastor of Lamott's church. He counsels Lamott when she becomes too addicted to the publishing process. He tells her that serenity can only come from within, and that while the world cannot provide it, the world also cannot take it away.
Lamott begins Bird by Bird with an introduction describing her lifelong love of books and her father's influence on her life and writing. Although she often wished that her father had a “regular” job like other fathers, she gradually began to realize that being a writer was the best job for him. She eventually followed in his footsteps. At an early age, Lamott realized that she possessed an uncanny ability to write engaging and often funny stories. But even with this ability, she was not an instant success as a writer. When her father fell ill with brain cancer, she was inspired to write about her family's struggles. Her father's agent accepted her manuscript, which was eventually published, and Lamott has worked as a writer ever since. She wrote Bird by Bird in order to share with the reader everything she knows about writing.
In Part One, Lamott addresses the daunting task of beginning to write. She talks about how writers should strive to write at the same time every day and urges them to give themselves short, discrete assignments rather than long, complicated ones. She keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk that reminds her to write about small things in detail before embarking on large projects. Often, these small exercises lead to valuable writing material, as in her anecdote about school lunches. In the writing exercise that describes a lunch preparation, Lamott explains how the process of writing about mundane details provides the seeds of an interesting story. Lamott also encourages writers to give themselves permission to write imperfect first drafts, since this is an integral part of story development. Self-criticism and perfectionism can be writers' worst enemies, but writers must somehow continue to write even as self-doubt plagues them. Lamott finds it helpful to believe in God or another higher power when fighting these enemies, and her spirituality permeates Bird by Bird.
Lamott then addresses the more technical details of writing, comparing the process of writing to the slow development of a Polaroid picture. Characters develop organically, and writers must foster this development by loving each of their characters. Each character should be readily identifiable by what he or she says, and in most cases the narrator should be a lovable figure. Also, good dialogue is integral to a story. Plot should develop from character, and writers shouldn't try to cram characters into plots that don't suit them. She points out that a good plot treatment (i.e., a brief summation of what happens in the story) can be a valuable tool for a story that is in trouble. She recalls a book of hers that was rejected by her editor even after multiple revisions. Only when she described the plot treatment did her editor understand the problem: the story that existed on paper was far different from the one that existed in Lamott's head.
Part Two examines “The Writing Frame of Mind.” Lamott implores writers to remain aware of and reverent toward the world around them. She also states that good writing must be moral. By this she means that one's writing must be driven by one's deepest beliefs, as it is this level of passion that creates the best writing. Lamott calls the critical voices in her head Radio Station KFKD (a name that becomes hilarious when pronounced aloud) and frequently concentrates on silencing them. These voices can lead to jealousy, a trait which she denounces as one of the worst handicaps a writer can possess. Jealousy of other writers—or anyone else—is counterproductive and should be avoided at all costs.
In Part Three, Lamott emphasizes the importance of community in writing. She thinks that writer's groups can be a good source of community, but that they can also be hotbeds of criticism. Writers must be extremely discriminating when deciding with whom to share their writing. She stresses the importance of having another person read your writing. Someone else's input is extremely valuable, especially for beginning writers. When her students are stumped, she suggests that they write to friends and family about important events in their lives. This exercise often triggers important memories that can serve as fodder for writing. Finally she addresses the curse of writer's block: patience and faith are the only real cures. A block will always pass, she believes.
In Part Four, Lamott reminds her readers that their writing can be a gift. She frequently uses writing in her own life in order to memorialize someone for whom she cares deeply. She discusses her writing as a reaction to the deaths of her father and her friend Pam. Writing about these events helped her come to terms with her grief. Lamott goes on to demand that her students find their own voice. Her students often mimic famous writers, which prohibits them from writing truthfully. She implores them not to shy away from detailing the more uncomfortable moments in their lives; in fact, it is these moments that often lead to the best writing. Briefly, Lamott touches on the much-hyped process of publishing. She recalls her intense anxieties during the process of publishing and notes that while there are some pleasurable moments, publication itself is not enough to make a writer happy.
Lamott concludes that being a writer is the best life she can imagine. For her, the best thing about being a writer is the pride she feels at producing such satisfying work. Writing feeds Lamott's soul and helps her to love the world. Bird by Bird expresses her desire to share the joy that writing brings to her life.
Lamott believes that the smaller things in life, the details, should be a primary focus for a writer. Her reasoning is twofold: first, the focus on details enhances the writing; and second, this focus alleviates anxiety and helps to calm the writer. For example, Lamott describes a one-inch picture frame, which reminds her to work with small subjects and start slowly. Lamott also talks about using index cards as her version of notebooks—small and portable, they allow her to record events quickly and in detail. Lamott makes multiple references to the wisdom of small children. The most notable emphasis on small things is the title itself, derived from some advice Lamott's father gave her brother. Lamott's father told his son to take a massive school project on birds “bird by bird,” instead of thinking of the enormity of the whole task. The advice was to take writing—and life—one small thing at a time.
Photographs symbolize captured memories, and Lamott advises writers to write as if they were capturing a moment in a photograph. More specifically, Lamott compares the act of writing to the development of a Polaroid. Both require patience and faith. Neither can be rushed. And the final product is not entirely predictable. One must simply take the steps necessary for the story or the photograph to appear. Many of Lamott's descriptions of her own essays include comparisons to Polaroids, and she makes it clear that the story she originally has in mind is not always the story she ends up writing. Photographs symbolize the purpose and the method of writing, as well as the faith required to capture a memory for posterity. hi
Lamott states that she is worried about being seen as a fundamentalist, and although she makes numerous references to her faith, she does not engage specifically in Christian rhetoric. She does refer often to her church, usually when she is describing a difficult period or a dilemma she faces. For example, she goes to church before flying to the East Coast for an interview, a trip she fears. She goes to her pastor when the temptations of publishing distress her. Church for Lamott is place of solace, wisdom, and rejuvenation. It symbolizes both faith and community. Lamott requires the formal structure of the church, which is also one of the few organizations that give Lamott a feeling of comfort and safety. Church, with its accompanying structure and organization, represents sanctuary for Lamott when both life and writing become too difficult.