Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is more an example of good writing than a manual for how to produce it.
Don’t get me wrong: there are useful tips inside. If your novel seems too large to tackle as a whole, divide it into short assignments. Or go even further and tell yourself that, to begin, all you have to do for a given scene is describe what you can see through a one-inch picture frame. Give yourself permission to write bad first drafts. (They don’t have to be bad, but it’s not a big deal if they are.) And if you’re worried about libel, give the character in question “a teeny little penis,” so that the real version will be less likely to come forth.
But none of this is revolutionary. (Although the penis strategy sounds fun.) And Lamott has little to say about story structure—she’s firmly in the “pantser” camp (the group of authors who write by the seat of their pants, without much in the way of planning). “Plot grows out of character,” she notes. “I say don’t worry about plot. Worry about the characters.” Sound advice… to a point. Yet later in Bird by Bird, she relates how her most successful novel took several drafts to get right, iterations she spent flailing around, “kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure” that worked. It was only when her agent asked her to write a plot treatment that she figured out where she was headed.
That sounds a lot like an outline to me.
Now, it could be that she had to write the early drafts to know what would go in the plot treatment. But perhaps writing the plot treatment earlier would have saved her time and heartache.
Whatever the pain involved, though, Lamott’s results are hard to argue with—I loved her prose. When describing why she splits the job of writing a book into short assignments, she observes that taking on the whole thing at once is “like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at your desk like your sickest, most secret relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around your computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.”
Bird by Bird is chock full of lines and anecdotes like this. And while they didn’t necessarily teach me to be a better writer, they did make me want to read more of Lamott’s work. That might not be the best endorsement of a book about writing.
But then again, maybe it is.