Thursday, October 14, 2010


An update on my promise at the end of my Words of a Feather post: I did start reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and got all the way to page 28 before I finally gave up on it. Turns out my suspicions were valid, but at least (for now) my chapeau is safe.

It's a well-written book, and I know a lot of people have enjoyed it (oh, yes. Of this, I'm sure.) The author is even occasionally funny. So everyone who loves the book should stop reading right here and go to another blog because if you don't I'm probably going to offend the hell out of you.

The problem I had with the book is really on me, not the author. My life experience is very different from hers, as is my tragedy scale. So is my evolution as a writer and my view of the work. I am not unsympathetic, and I'm sure she felt she was being brutally honest.

That said, when you talk about writing to another writer, you should never assume you know what their writing life is like, or tell them how it should be if they want to be a real writer. Employing too much of the neurotic excuse-laden self-pitying ego-stroking so beloved by the literati doesn't score any points with me. Nor does a memoir disguised as a writing book. If you want to be inspirational, you have to sing me more than ye olde ancient tune of the real writer being a booze-soaked, cosmically-tormented artist sans an iota of self-esteem (something I also believe is complete crap.) I have heard it all before, a gazillion times, trust me.

These are some of the reasons why I was bored by bored before the author even finished her introduction. Beyond that I found very little practical advice for the working writer, and no birds at all -- at least, not by page 28.

You know, we all have issues. For some writers, one big issue seems to be the writing itself. It's like a bad marriage to an abusive spouse that never ends; they fight it and wail about it and bleed over it and then crawl into a bottle of booze or pills trying to get away from it, only to go back and be battered again.

This is where I come up short, because writing for me is a non-issue. It's probably an anti-issue. It's the most fun I can have that doesn't involve my guy, several hours and a locked door. It's not always perfect, and I certainly have bad writing days just like anyone else. It's the hardest work I've ever done, and the best job I've ever had. I'm not married to writing, but we've lived together practically my whole life, and (unlike my ex-spouses) it's been utterly faithful and taken very good care of me.

One good thing that came out of trying to read this book was kind of a reality check. I know what I put on the blog carries a certain amount of weight because of my experience as a pro, but I will never know what your writing life is like or what makes someone a real writer. I need to be more vigilant about what I post here so that you never assume I do, because if I'm sure of anything, it's that no one knows. We just do the best we can with what we've been given, and hopefully help each other out when we can along the way.


  1. I think that was very well said.. I haven't actually read that book, but i know every writer is different and has different struggles. I have never had a novel published, but I still write and when I do, it is for fun and never feels like a job. I wish I was blessed enough to have someone tell me to write all day long.

    Check out my blog @

  2. Yup, that's pretty much how I feel about Bird by Bird. Too much angst, not enough fun, as if every writer is (and should be!) a special snowflake who is barely clinging to this big, scary writing thing.

    That hasn't been my experience. At all.

  3. It's been a long while since I've read the book, so I can't recall anything about it (probably a bad sign), although I use the "bird by bird" phrase because it's the perfect metaphor for getting through a big project.

    As for your being careful what you write, I wouldn't worry about it. YMMV is another perfect metaphor for any kind of advice, and I don't feel inferior over my struggles with the written word because you don't feel that way.

  4. Eh, those who go with that "I'm an artist and I bleed over my keyboard" drive me insane.

    There's one writer in particular who just loves to use that crap and I just want to shake her.

    We've got jobs-we've got jobs doing something we love. Are they easy? No. But I wouldn't WANT it if it was easy. Easy would mean anybody could it and easy would also mean some of the books we love to read might not stand out so much-because ANYBODY could do it.

    That's why I rarely bother reading books by writers. No worth it, IMO.

    Now if you put them out? Well... *G*

  5. It's post like this that make me wish I still lived in FL - just so we could hang out. =o)

  6. When I read Bird by Bird ten years ago I was going through a rough patch and just learning to write, so it really resonated with me. Now, though, I wouldn't have patience for it. I'm more interested in the business of writing, as well as simply enjoying the process. I've realized over time that it doesn't have to be agony. You can choose to write something you enjoy writing about.
    Thanks for being willing to share what you really thought.

  7. Probably much better to go watch birds. And take pictures. : )

  8. The one thing I liked from Bird by Bird was her idea of writing about one tiny little thing in the story (symbolized by a 1" square) when the whole task seems daunting. It's otherwise pretty much fluff to me.

    But ALL writing books are. Other than On Writing, every single one has been utterly and completely useless (if not downright toxic with the poison of second-guessing myself and my process). I've since made it a policy to avoid them. Always. Heck, most of the time I don't even read blog posts about method since I know they're not good for me.

    As for some of the comments that talk about the wangsty artist writer, all I can say is that I'm one of them. For me - and just me - writing fiction has always been a way to vent off the bad sh*t so it doesn't eat me alive. If there's no bad sh*t, the words don't come and nothing I've tried has yet had an effect on that. Frankly, it sucks and I'm often insanely jealous of you folks who can create prose without cutting yourself open and letting blood splatter on the page.

    But, again, we're all different. We might all be walking to the same place, but our paths, itinerary, and landscape vary wildly from green flowered fields, to shiny arching cities, to desolate and barren wastelands, and any conceivable place between. That's why writing books don't work and, in fact, can cause damage. Unless the author is on a path much like yours, their experience and philosophy likely has no value to your own journey, or is so alien it can create discord within your own working, productive methods.

    I think we all should write to please ourselves, in the manner that best works for us as individuals, and work outward from that, not re-form ourselves to fit someone else's notion of how it should be done.

  9. I can't tell you how many copies of BbyB I've been given from loved ones seeking to encourage my career transition to full time writer (not author, yet).

    I can tell you it's the same number of copies that I donated to Half Price Books. (Yes, donated - have you "sold" a book there? Trust me, what they pay you makes it a donation.)

    So this morning, when I read your post, I was thrilled. Happy to know someone I respect as a pro author/writer -- not the least of which for her support of would-be writers without snootiness -- shared my view on this memoir. (Cuz, yeah, you're right, that's what it is. Please).

    I admit that reading your post today gave me some vindication. Maybe I shouldn't need it (ye Gads, do I need to check the self-esteem meter?!) ... but it's always nice to have.

    Especially appreciated this one sentence (LOL,LOL):

    "Employing too much of the neurotic excuse-laden self-pitying ego-stroking so beloved by the literati doesn't score any points with me."

    Me either. You go girl.

    You've made my week.

  10. I read the book when it first came out. Very literary fiction with intense naval gazing right out of a neurotic MFA program.

    I much prefer the pragmatism of genre and its writers.

    We do the emotions without getting whiny.

  11. Anonymous1:50 PM

    Upset about your view on Bird by Bird?


    You have perspective on virtually everything you write about and that is why I enjoy reading your blog.



  12. You know, I try to balance all parts of being a writer. I relate with Tammy Jones to a large degree. The writing keeps the darkness in my mind from coming out in bad ways (or eating me alive.) This way I at least entertain people with it.

    But I've had people ask about the tormented, angsty side of me. They're usually like, "Well, where is it? I know it's in there." I smile, tell them they are absolutely right, but as of right now I choose not to shovel it on everyone. This is because I get to stay home all day and write. I consider myself blessed beyond measure.

    Not to mention if I'm sharing my bleeding heart all over the place to family and friends who know its there anyway, that means I'm not WRITING!

    Whining about writing is the absolute best way to procrastinate on writing, and I make it a rule to avoid that. :)

  13. I KNEW you wouldn't like it. Heh.

    The first time I read it, I liked it okay but it wasn't practical, which is what I was looking for at the time. But I didn't finish anything in 2009 and was terrified I'd somehow used up all my writing talent already. I picked it back up and the neurotic POV was soothing because I was in a space I could relate to it, and the one-inch screen, the broccoli, that was helpful in that moment.

    But since then, I've written three books and am in a much better place. I don't think I'd find it as helpful now.

    I still recommend it to new writers because I find they're usually in that bad head space, the flailing what-am-I-doing mindset that the book sort of goes with, but as with any advice, it's all a grain of salt. Take what you can use and pitch the rest.

  14. Thank you. It's one of those "everyone says I have to read it" books that sits in the back of my mind and makes me fear my TBR pile. I don't actually have a copy yet, but that's the impression I got about it from people who loved it. Honestly, there are people it speaks to, and that's grand. And maybe if it focused on going back and editing all that writing (where my current struggles lie though I get it done so probably not fair to call it struggles) I might relate, but I prefer the practical advice that's short, sweet, and recognizes that if it doesn't work, that's fine. I do tend to read writing technique books with an eye for "this is how I can do the thing you just said was completely forbidden" not on purpose, but because I'm contrary :).

    P.S. I have received my arc with the kind thought inside, however, your books ALWAYS creep to the top. The only thing that blocks them is if I'm in the middle of a different one...or the outright theft that happens when I'm right there looking. Hubby left me the shiny bookmark, but the book itself is GONE! For a couple days that is :).

  15. I have the book. I started it years ago, and I don't think I even made it to page 28 before I set it aside. I couldn't tell you today why I set it aside, but I've had a nagging sense that I should return to it. Maybe it's better to let, er, sleeping birds lie in this case and continue moving on to other things.

    In fact, I'm doing some sorting for a NaNo book drive, and that book may find it's way into the stack. Someone else may be more inspired by it than I have been.

  16. Anonymous6:08 PM

    For people who don't wake up every day feeling totally confident about who they are and what they're doing, the book is a tremendous resource. Just because you love writing or have a desire to do it, doesn't mean it's fun or easy. I have no truck w/ people who are always bemoaning how difficult writing is, or how much they sacrifice for their writing, but I do have some compassion for creative people (or ANY people) who have blocks to being who they really are/doing what they really want to do and want to work through them. And that's who 'Bird by Bird' was written for---not whiners who use their issues as excuses not to write.

    And, if you'd read a little further, you'd have got to the parts where she talks about the energy, the fun and the elation of writing.

    I enjoy your blog, keep up the good work.

    Jeff P.


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