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#4 Bird by Bird Some instructions on writing and life. Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird

Some instructions on writing and life. Anne Lamott

Who is this book for?

This is a book for anyone who wants to learn to become a better writer. From an accomplished writer/teacher; a self-help book to encourage you to adopt a certain discipline and as well create from places you didn't think possible in ways you haven’t thought of. It's sort of flows together with the Pressfield The War of Art. I quite liked it and I will find it useful when approaching my songwriting and fiction writing.

My three takeaways.

1) You should write every day for the joy of it and for the discipline and realize that the real gold is on page 4 and you can't get to page 4 without going through pages 1,2 and 3.

2) Don’t do it for the glory. Publication of your music or books can be kind of a crazy kaleidoscope of egoic imaginings that can just take you farther from your art. Do it for the love of it and do it because that's what you were born to do.

3) Write from a place of who you really are and write what you want to say and sing about from your own point of reference. The truth is the most important thing. “Three chords and the truth” as they say in Nashville and she says it here in her book as well.


Here are some excerpts notes from her book.

Writing is like a primal verification; you're in print - therefore you exist. Writing can be for some people having someone speak for you directly. You close a book with a sense of both triumph and relief, one lonely isolated social animal finally making contact.

Publication is not all that it's cracked up to be. But writing is. Just keep the faith and keep practicing.

On writing. Good writing is about telling the truth. Start with your childhood right down all your memories. Remember what happened to you is something that you own. Sit down at approximately the same time every day. Some days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it. When you're in the flow you don't care about those for first three pages; those you will throw out, those you needed to write to get to that fourth page. You didn't know that you couldn't know that until you got it. If you sit there long enough something will happen. Becoming a better writer is going to make you become a better reader, and that is a real payoff. What's real is if you do your skills every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you'll get better.

On short assignments.

I finally noticed the 1 inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. Remind me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through that 1 inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. Write one paragraph it sets the story up. One line of lyric that sets the verse up. E.L. Doctorow once said that quotation marks writing a novel it's like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life.

Regarding shitty first drafts.

Nobody writes elegant first drafts. Few riders really know what they are doing until they've done it. The only way I get anything written is all is to write really really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where are you let it all poor out and then let it romp all over the place. Again there may be something in the last line of the very last paragraph on page 6 there was no way to get to this without first going through the first 5 1/2 pages. So start riding without training yourself in. Start by getting something anything down on paper. Friend of mine says that the first draft is the downdraft you just get it down. The second draft is the updraft. You fix it up. Quiet the voices in your head. Quieting the voices is half the battle. Close your eyes isolate one of those voices imagine the voice speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it in the mason jar. Then you have then imagine you have volume control on the bottle. Turn it all the way down.

Perfectionism, Polaroids and Character

Clutter and mess show us that her life is being lived. Learn to be more compassionate company to yourself. There is beauty in pure effort.

Knowledge of your characters emerge the way a Polaroid develops. You need to find out as much as possible about the interior life of the people you're working with. What would be the first thing they stop doing if they found out they had six months to live.

Bad things happen to good characters. Because even good characters behave badly sometimes and that's OK as we do not all have to behave perfectly all the time.

Someone said,” the evidence is in and you are the verdict.”

Everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is.

Whatever your characters do or say will be born out of who they are, so you need to set out to get to know each one as well as possible. One way to do this is to look within your own heart, at the different facets of your personality. You may find a ConMan, an orphan, a nurse, a king, a hooker, a preacher loser child a crown. Go into each of these people and try to capture how each one feels, thanks, talks, survives. See if you can hear what they say and how they would say it.

We all live short stories. I am trying to learn to stay in the now – not the last now, not the next now, this now.

Nothing is as important as a likeable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.

When it comes to characters..preoccupation with self is good, as is a tendency towards procrastination, self delusion, darkness, jealousy, grovelling, greediness, addictiveness.

We want to believe that a character is not playing games or being coy or manipulative, but he's telling the truth to the best of his or her ability. You won't know your characters until weeks or months after you've started working with them. You might find that the stranger you talked to once for a half an hour in a railway station may have done more to point you to where your true homeland lies then your priest or your best friend or even your psychiatrist. Just don't pretend that you know more about your characters than they do because you don't. Stay open to them. It's teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It's that simple.


Don't worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Be involved in their lives and keep asking yourself now what happens? The development of a relationship creates plot.

Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you'll have discovered what's at stake. Find a way to express this discovery in action and then let your people said about finding you're holding onto for defending whatever it is. Think of a hockey player, there had better be a puck out there on the ice or he is going to look pretty ridiculous.

Get into a zone and become the designated typist. Be the person whose job it is to hold the lantern while the muse does the digging. He doesn't know what he's digging for but he knows gold when he sees it. Don't worry about it just keep your story on the move.

The writer is creating a dream into which he or she invites the reader, and that dream must be vivid and continuous because it is so crucial. Outside the classroom, you don't get to sit next to your readers and explain little things you left out, or fill in details that would have made the action more interesting or believable. You simply have to find out what happens next, and this is how you want your reader to feel.

Drama is a way of holding the readers attention. The basic formula for drama is set up, build up, pay off - just like a joke. The set up tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, why are we here anyway? What is it that you're been trying to give?

Drama must move forward and upward or the seats on which the audience are sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable. There must be movement.

If you fake something you probably won't be able to get away with it. The audience will catch you if you try to fake it. You need to go into you, wonderful you, who has so much problems in the idiosyncrasies. You can figure things out regarding what the song or plot needs to do.

The climax is a major event, usually toward the end, that brings all the tunes you've been playing so far into one major chord, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed. If someone isn't changed, then what is the point of your story?

For the climax, there must be a killing or a healing or domination. It can be a real killing, murder, or it can be a killing of the spirit, or if something terrible inside one soul, or it can be a killing of a deadness within, after which the person becomes alive again.

Climax of your story will probably only reveal itself to you slowly in overtime. You may think that you need to know what it is it's important to aim for something but I recommend that you not worry too hard to fix it instead on who your people are and how they feel about each other, what they say, what how they smell, whom they fear.

ABDCE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending. You develop these people, so that we learn what they care about most. The plot the drama, the actions, the tension will grow out of that. You move them all along until everything comes out together in a climax after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?


We all have the pleasures of voyeurism because the characters don't know we are listening. Dialogue is more like a movie than it is like real life, since it should be more dramatic. You listen to how people really talk, and then learn little by little to take someone's five minute speech and make it one sentence, without losing anything. You should be able to identify each character by what he or she says.

Try putting together two people that more than anything in the world wish to avoid each other. They don't ever wanna see each other again. Take a character who one of your main characters feels this way about the other and put the two of them in the same elevator. Then let the elevator get stuck. Good dialogue gives us a sense that we are eavesdropping. Good dialogue encompasses both what it said in some sort of self hypnosis, and then you have to practice getting it out onto the page. Try to remember that to some extent, you're just a typist. A good typist listens.

Set Design. Every room is about a memory. These rooms are future ruins. Metaphors are a great language to all, because they explain the unknown in terms of the known. They only work though if they resonate in the heart of the writer. If you don't know anything about gardening in your book needs a gardener you should do the research and ask all kinds of people about it.

Plot treatment. I want to make God laugh, tell her your plans. I wrote a short draft assignment by short assignment making each section, no matter how small or seemingly casual, as good as I could. When do you know you're done? Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor your project is kind of like an octopus in bed you have to tuck in all of your body arms.

Looking around. Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on. You're outside, but you can see things up close through your binoculars. Your job is to present clearly your viewpoint, your line of vision. Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others. You probably won't be able to present a character that's recognizable if you do not first have self compassion. Look out at the world and see all those other things with respect there is ecstasy in paying attention. You can kind of get into a words worthy and openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign of God is implicit in all creation. I have a tape of a Tibetan singing a mantra of compassion over and over for an hour, eight words over and over and every line feels different, feels cared about, and experienced as she is singing. That kind of attention is a prize in and of itself. The moral point of you. You need to put yourself at the center, you need to believe to be right or true. You have to believe in your position, or nothing will be driving your work. If you don't believe in what you were saying, there's no point in you're saying it. To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. Writer always tries to be part of the solution. The writer having given smiles and oblique and private smile at us and this changes how we look at life. The Dalai Lama said simply my true religion is kindness. That is a great moral position practising kindness, keeping one's heart open in the presence of suffering. My friend Carpenter says we no longer need chicken little to tell us the sky is falling, because it already has. The issue now is how to take care of one another. Regarding topics that love and death and sex and survival are important to most of us. Some of us also are interested in God and ecology. Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it. Freedom fighters don't always win, but they are always right. Listen to your broccoli and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it. When you don't know what to do, when you don't know whether your character would do this or that, you get quiet and try to hear that small still voice inside. It will tell you what to do you get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militarily on your own side. When you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. Sometimes intuition needs coaxing because intuition is a little bit shy. Just calm down get quiet breathe and listen sometimes intuitions are drowned out by folk sayings but the folks saying is guaranteed to be a cliché, stale and self-contained. I will see a character in a blue sharkskin suit and suddenly the voice of your mother pops in no put them in something respectable. If you listen to your worried mother pretty soon you'll be asleep and so will your reader. Learning to rely on your intuition is to find a useable metaphor for it. Broccoli so ridiculous that it works for me. My animal thinks this or my animal thinks that. Give your intuition and then. Whatever you come up with needs to suggest a voice that you were not trying to control. If you lost if you're lost in the forest let the horse find its way home. You have to stop directing, because you will only get it that way. Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself. Some of us tend to think that what we do and say and decide and right or cosmically important things. But they're not. If you don't know which way to go, keep it simple. Listen to your muse. If it worked in good faith for a couple of hours and you can't hear it today just go have some lunch.

Radio station KFKD or K fucked.

Out of the right speaker is self-aggrandizement. Out of the left speaker self-loathing. Sit for a moment and say a small prayer please help me get out of my own way so I can write what wants to be written. Rituals are a good sign of your unconscious but it is time to kick in. Use them. Follow your breath for a while it can ground you into relative silence. The golf stream will flow through a straw provided the straw is the line to the golf stream, and not at cross purposes with it. We need to align ourselves with the river of the story, the river of the unconscious, a memory insensibility, of our characters lives, which can then pour through us, the straw. When KFKD is played is playing we are at cross purposes with the river. We need to sit there and breathe,, ourselves down, push back our sleeves, and begin again.

Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer and the most degrading. My deepest belief is that to live as if we were dying can't set us free. Dying people teach us how to pay attention and to forgive and to not sweat the small things sometimes I go about pitying myself. All the while I am being carried on great winds across the sky. Something that has helped her was a poem called the book of my enemy has been remaindered and I am pleased. Do not let jealousy fuel your self loathing better to feel about it and talk about it and walk through it then to spend a lifetime being silently poisoned. I taped a line on my wall saying

I get up, I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile I keep dancing.

I also wrote pay closer attention pay closer attention to the world, about taking things less seriously, moving more slowly, stepping outside more often. My writing got funnier and compassion broke through.

Help along the way.

Writer is someone whom nothing is lost. I take out an index card and scribble things down when I have an idea. It's very rare that you think that you will remember it but you don't. Use index cards start thinking like a writer. Start seeing everything is material. Have a nice glass of wine and gin straight out of the cat dish. If you don't remember it don't believe that old adage if you don't remember it when you get home it probably wasn't important. It is important writing is putting down one damn word after another. What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. A critic is someone who comes onto the battlefield after the battle is over and shoots the wounded. Scribble down your stories. Being a writer guarantees that you will spend too much time alone and I said you sold your mind come into work it is useful to give yourself a 2:45 hundred words a day. But it's also every day the kid needs a break. So think of calling around is giving yourself a break.

Writing groups. So much a rating is about sitting down and doing it every day. Taking all you can, as a childhood, without the atmospheric fog of most grownups vision. Do you need attention. Someone to respond to your work as honestly as possible without being abusive or diminishing. You don't always have to chop with a sword of truth. You can point with it. Feedback encouragement benevolent pressure, and the company of other writers, you may want to consider starting a writers group. A good idea with the group is not to edit other peoples drafts but to listen to each other's work and help each other encourage each other to keep at it. A big heart is both a clunky and a delicate thing, it doesn't protect itself and it doesn't hurt. Short assignment, shitty first drafts.

Someone to read your drafts. Writing is so often about making mistakes and feeling lost maybe a spouse or close friend will read your finish drafts and give you honest critique, let you know what does and doesn't work, give you suggestions on things you might take out or things that you need to elaborate, ways in which you can make your peace stronger. The truth is a hard apple to catch and it is a hard apple to throw. Feedback from someone you're close to gives you confidence, or at least it gives you time to improve you can say I think it's going to be great I think it's really good work. But I also think they're a few problems. My friends usually talk to me going through my manuscript over the phone. You don't want to send something out that hasn't been sorted screened by somebody. To send your work to a potential agent for the first time, you don't want to risk burning that bridge by sending something that is just not ready. You really must get your piece or book just right, as right as you can.

Letters If you get yourself riding you might want to write in the form of a letter. A letter to your children or a friend. One man ended up writing a 200 page letter to his children because child.

Writers block. Writers are like vacuum cleaners, sucking up all that we can hear and see and read and think and feel and articulate and everything that everyone else within earshot can hear and think and see and feel. We're mimics, we're parents, we're right. But knowing the source of all of our stuff deprives it of its magic, because then the material feels Mundine, clichéd; you didn't have to discover it because it was already there for all to see. You may start to feel that you were trying to pass off a TV dinner at home cooking. When your wife locks you out of the house, you don't have a problem with the door. Do you need to see things from different angles. The word block suggests that you were constipated or stuff when the truth is you're empty. If you are not in a productive creative except this and it freeze yourself from being filled up again just keep your commitment to writing 300 words a day.

When someone's dying in front of you watch carefully because they are teaching you how to live.

We are all terminal on this bus. To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presents. We spent big round hours. OK let's see. Dying tomorrow. What should I do today? Should we read a book this morning or go to the beach or just really participate in ordinary life. I would probably want to keep things simple but I would want to be present. There are 1 million reasons not to write, to give up. That is why it is of extreme importance to make a commitment to finishing sections and stories to driving through to the finish. But then this is how you're going to get better and there's no point in practising if you don't finish.

Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before. Do you 300 words then go for a walk.

Writing a present. Twice now I have written books that began as presents to people who I loved and was going to die I rode as fast as I could so that I could read it before they die. One critic sent back her manuscript and said you have made the mistake of thinking that everything has happened to you is interesting. So I wrote down everything that happened to us and then I took out the parts that were self indulgent. Some people may have thought the book was too personal to confessional but these people think about me is none of my business.

Finding your Voice I ask students to write down the reason they want to write, why they are in my class, what is propelling them to do this sometimes excruciating sometimes boring work. Real life is so often big and messy and hurtful and dread. Life is lukewarm enough. Give us a little bit heat. We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle they have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise you just been rearranging furniture in rooms you've already been in. More human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writers job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and you turn the unspeakable into words, not just into any words but if we can into rhythm and blues. Truth seems to want expression. If you can bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don't bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will destroy you. And the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. It is wrapped in someone else's voice, the readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else's clothes. God is your home. It's wonderful to watch someone finally Open that for bidden door that has been that has kept him or her away. What gets exposed there's not people based on us but their humanity. It turns out that the truth, or reality, is our home. Your anger and damage and brief are the way to your truth.

Giving. If you were giving freely there will always be more. You're going to have to give and give and give and there's no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There's no cosmic importance to you getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.

Your work are like children you'll have to feed them and keep them safe give them advice and love them when they ignore you. You're a three-year-old and your work in progress teach you to give. They teach you to get out of yourself and become a person for someone else. This is probably the secret to happiness. Two things put me in the spirit to get. When is that I have come to think of almost everyone with whom I come into contact as a patient in an emergency room. The worlds an orphans home.


An 8 years yold boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukaemia and he was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explain to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, and if so, he could be the blood donor. They asked him if they could test his blood. Said sure. So they did and it was a good match. And they asked if he would give his sister a pint of blood, and that it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight. The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate blood. So they gay took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew the pint of blood from from the buoy, which was then put in the girls IV. The boy lay on his journey in silence while the blood was dripping into his sister, until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy open his eyes and asked, “how soon until I start to die?”

Art has to point somewhere. We are wired as humans to be open to the world instead of enclosed in a fortified defensive mentality. If you want to have a mind if you want to have in mind what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you're lucky, you'll get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent. You will feel that you've done something right. You require you acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you're a published writer..

Ego. Whenever the world throws rose petals at you, which thrill and seduce the ego, beware. The cosmic banana peel is suddenly going to appear underneath to make sure you don't take it all too seriously, that you don't fill up on junk food. If you're not good enough before the gold medal, you won't be good enough with it. You may want to tape this to your wall next to your desk. As Ram Dass said once about somebody ism – how most of us are raised to be somebody's and what I know when game that is to buy into, because while you may turn out to be much more somebody than somebody else, a lot of people are going to be a lot more somebody than you. And you were going to drive yourself crazy.

One idea is to write about a time in your life when you were so intensely interested in the world, when your powers of observation were at the most acute, when you felt things so deeply.

Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. Really caring about the truth. You will recognize this in your own life and truth in what you say in the pictures you have painted and this decreases a terrible sense of isolation that you have all had much of.

Try to direct write in a directly emotional way. Instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don't be afraid of your material or your past. If something inside you is real, you'll probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. Right straight into the emotional centre of things. Right towards vulnerability. Don't worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being available, worry about being absent or fraudulant.

Tell the truth as you understand it. As a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. Writing and telling the truth it is a revolutionary act; truth is always subversive.

Always write out a vengeance, as long as you do so nicely.

You should write with everything you have daily ,if possible and for the rest of your lives. Devotion and commitment will be its own reward. Write short assignment, shitty first drafts, 1 inch picture frames, Polaroids, messes, mistakes. Lighthouses don't go running all over and I looking for boats to say it they just stand there shining. Be a lighthouse.

You simply keep putting down one damn word after another as you hear them as they come to you. Do it as a Japanese person would perform a tea ceremony, with the level of concentration and care in which you can lose yourself, and so in which you can find yourself.

We are all giving a shot of dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

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