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Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird Summary


Here you will find a Bird by Bird summary (Anne Lamott's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Bird by Bird Summary Overview

Having always been a lover of literature, influenced greatly by her father's commitment to the craft, she found herself stepping into the world of writing, despite initially desiring a more conventional path. Her talent for crafting captivating and humorous narratives was evident from a young age, but it was not instantly met with success. It was the process of writing about her family's trials during her father's battle with brain cancer that set her writing career into motion. She delves into the intimidating journey of beginning to write, advocating for consistency and manageable tasks over ambitious projects. She emphasizes the importance of writing imperfect first drafts, as they lay the groundwork for story development. She insists on the need to overcome self-criticism and perfectionism, carrying on with the writing process despite doubts. Finding solace in faith, she incorporates spirituality into her writing to combat these hurdles. She later focuses on technical aspects of writing, likening it to the gradual development of a Polaroid photograph. She urges writers to allow their characters to evolve naturally and to ensure their distinctive identities. She underlines the importance of dialogue and that the plot should stem from the characters rather than forcing characters into ill-fitting plots. She reiterates the importance of writing community and caution when choosing who to share your writing with. She values the impact of other's feedback, especially for novice writers. The curse of writer’s block, she believes, can only be remedied with patience and faith. Lastly, she expresses how writing can be a therapeutic tool for dealing with grief and other deep-seated emotions. She cautions against striving for perfection or imitating others and encourages authenticity. She concludes that the life of a writer is fulfilling, with the reward being the satisfaction derived from the work itself.


Anne Lamott, the author, introduces us to her early life where writing played a significant role. Her father was a fervent writer, and their family often indulged in reading sessions. Despite craving a more normal life with a father who had regular office hours, she now understands that wouldn't have suited him. As she matures, Lamott identifies herself as a writer, even though it distances her from her friends' conventional lives. Her sense of isolation grows when her father's critical article about their hometown creates controversy. She learns that writers often lead solitary lives. During her adolescence, Lamott tries to write something meaningful, questioning if her father experienced the same loneliness and eccentricity. Despite her initial efforts not being great, she persists in writing. She contributes to her school paper and journals, gradually honing her storytelling skills. In college, she develops a passion for literature and philosophy and starts writing a postmodern novel. Post-college, she struggles a bit, but her father's encouragement and advice to write daily prove beneficial, even though his agent doesn't represent her. When her father contracts brain cancer, Lamott writes about his struggle and its effect on her family. This time, her father's agent supports her, and her book gets published. Although she expects financial success and fame, she realizes that she cannot retire just yet based on her earnings. Lamott continues to write and mentor others in writing. She emphasizes the importance of enjoying the process of writing instead of chasing fame and wealth. She perceives writing as a magical affliction that only some contract. She wants to assist genuine aspirants, but she observes an unhealthy fixation on publication and the business aspects of writing among her students. While she doesn't mind sharing her experiences, she warns them about the challenges of being a writer. Lamott urges people to write out of desire and necessity. She ends by stating that Bird by Bird encapsulates all her wisdom about writing.

part 1

Lamott highlights the importance of honesty in writing and encourages her students to start by recounting their early experiences. She insists that the key is to just start writing and to persist, despite the mental hurdles. She argues that even poor writing can yield valuable pieces. She underlines the significance of embracing unexpected turns in writing and promotes focusing on the act of writing rather than the pursuit of publishing. Despite her students' obsession with publication, Lamott repeatedly warns that it is not a cure-all for life's challenges. She advocates for starting with smaller assignments to avoid overwhelming novice writers. She shares her father's advice to her brother to tackle tasks "bird by bird" or step by step, a philosophy she extends to her writing students. Lamott refutes the notion that successful writing comes out instantly perfect, instead embracing the reality of an often "shitty first draft." In dealing with the inner critic and perfectionism, she recommends visualizing the critical voice as a mouse in a jar. She stresses the need to bypass perfectionism, suggesting faith or self-compassion as helpful tools. Faced with writer's block, Lamott proposes writing about school lunches to focus on specific details. Similarly, she shares Natalie Goldberg's advice to simply practice writing to improve. She likens writing to a Polaroid photo that develops over time. She refers to her friend's concept of understanding a character's "emotional acre" or inner world, stressing that characters should evolve naturally over time. She emphasizes the importance of a likable narrator and the organic development of the plot from the characters. Plot development should be gradual, and feedback from others can help remove ineffective sections. Dialogue brings characters to life, and Lamott suggests practicing it by pairing characters with conflicting personalities. She also advises researching or visualizing story settings for a believable backdrop. Lamott compares initial writing attempts to an artist's false starts. She draws on her nursing home visits, stating that just as she observes the residents to see beneath the surface, writers should examine their characters deeply. She shares her experience revising her second novel, highlighting the usefulness of a plot treatment to capture the story's essence. Lastly, Lamott analogizes finishing a novel to trying to stow an octopus under a bed—difficult and messy, but eventually, one just runs out of energy to grapple with it.

part 2

Lamott suggests that writers should distinguish themselves from others by being observers rather than participants. They need to attentively notice their environment with sympathy and discernment. The concept is to perceive the world compassionately without getting overwhelmed. Lamott compares this process to the wonder kids feel towards the universe. The narrative a writer is crafting should be of profound importance to them, or they're destined to fail. Lamott believes every write-up has a moral perspective, regardless of its overt preachiness or religious stance. The narrative and characters must resonate with human and societal values. If your writing doesn't encompass some basic universal themes, it becomes challenging to proceed. A good writer always has something fresh to deliver. According to Lamott, intuition is pivotal in a writer's quest for truth. She uses an old Mel Brooks routine to illustrate this, where a psychiatrist advises a patient, “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.” Lamott insists that if a writer truly pays heed to their work, intuition will direct them. It's crucial to reconnect with intuition, often suppressed in childhood, for success in writing. One method to engage with your intuition is to silence inner voices of doubt and judgment that push towards conformity. Lamott humorously states that writers often experience the metaphorical radio station KFKD in their minds while writing. This station plays voices that can make writers oscillate between self-pity and self-doubt. The ideal way to handle this internal chatter is to be cognizant of it, with focussed efforts on silencing these voices. Jealousy is identified as the most potent voice on KFKD, an emotion all writers grapple with. It can intensify when a writer feels undervalued or when a less deserving writer gets recognition. Jealousy can lead to bitterness. Lamott shares her personal experience of dealing with envy when a friend flaunted her success during Lamott's tough times. Lamott managed her jealousy by writing about it and using humor, eventually distancing herself from the boastful friend.

part 3

Lamott uses index cards to jot down observations and ideas that come up throughout her day. These cards help her remember moments and thoughts that she might otherwise forget. Despite being disorganized and having far too many cards, she finds them incredibly useful for jogging her memory when she feels stuck with her writing. For Lamott, almost anything can be considered "material" for writing. She shares experiences of how certain memories, like the smell of a woman's perfume or her son's comment about the night sky, were noted on cards and later used in her writing. Although she discards many of these cards, they serve as a physical record of her memories and inspirations, a kind of inheritance for her son. Lamott also discusses the importance of research, viewing it as a means of making the writing process more social. By reaching out to experts, writers can not only gather required information but also find inspiration for their writing. She shares an experience of needing to know a specific term related to wine bottles, and how the process of finding that information led to a beautifully written scene. Writer groups and conferences can provide valuable feedback for writers, according to Lamott. She advises beginner writers not to expect instant success or publication, instead focusing on providing and receiving constructive criticism, emotional support, and sharing experiences with other writers. Lamott shares experiences from her own writing classes, including an incident where a student's harsh critique left the class on edge. She emphasizes the importance of constructive criticism, and that it's okay to take risks and fail in writing. Lamott advises writers struggling with what to write about to explore their own life experiences. She recounts how a commissioned essay about the San Francisco Giants led her to explore her own memories and feelings about baseball. Dealing with writer's block, Lamott suggests writing three hundred words a day on any topic, avoiding forcing a particular story. She shares how her novels were inspired by personal experiences, such as her father's and friend's battles with cancer, and her experiences as a single mother. Lamott also shares a heartfelt story about a sick baby named Brice, and how writing an essay about her visits to him brought comfort to his grieving parents. She warns against trying to mimic other writers and encourages finding one's own voice and material. For Lamott, writing is a generous act, a way to give back to those who inspire her and her readers. She shares a touching story of a young boy willing to give blood to his sister, misunderstanding it would cost him his life. She views this innate generosity and innocence as a gift for writers, allowing them to see beyond the ordinary. Lamott then discusses the highs and lows of publication, and warns against getting too caught up in the attention that comes with it. She emphasizes that the act of writing should be the focus, not publication. In her writing workshops, Lamott stresses the importance of writing about strong feelings, personal experiences, and one's own truth, even if it's controversial. She advises writers to modify physical descriptions of characters to avoid libel suits. Lamott shares the success of a student who, after changing certain details about his mother, wrote a powerful story about his abusive childhood. Lastly, she hails the writing life as liberating and rewarding, offering a sense of joy in an often complex world.

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