Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004
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I don't review books I don't like!

*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations

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*****Bird by Bird

Some Instructions on Writing and Life

by Anne Lamott

Reviewed February 18, 2004.
Pantheon Books, New York, 1994.
Available at Sembach Library (808.02 LAM).
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #3, Nonfiction Old Favorites

Bird by Bird is one of my very favorite books on writing.  It’s especially inspiring when I’m trying to write the first draft of a new book.  Her advice keeps me from burning it all and giving up in despair.

She gives two special pieces of advice that keep me going.  One is short assignments—Don’t sit down and try to write the whole book.  You’ll panic.  Instead, “all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.”

The other wonderful word of wisdom is about crummy first drafts.  Okay, she uses a more graphic word that is very satisfying and truthful, but I don’t want to shock my readers.  Anyway, when I realize that what I’ve written is completely lousy, I’m so comforted that it is supposed to be that way.  First, you get it down on paper.  Then, you clean it up.  This comforting advice keeps me from giving up and starting all over each day that I try to work.  This way, I may actually get something written.  The first version is mostly terrible, but that’s completely normal.

Anne Lamott says, “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident.  Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.  All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”

The rest of the book has insightful, wise, inspiring and hilarious thoughts on writing.  Anne Lamott is a person who knows how to use her own neuroses to good effect!  I will go so far to say that anyone who wants to write should read this book.

Here are a few gems:

“Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises.  That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part.”

“They may even go from wanting to have written something to just wanting to be writing, wanting to be working on something, like they’d want to be playing the piano or tennis, because writing brings with it so much joy, so much challenge.  It is work and play together.”

“We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.  Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little.”

“You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive.  But you cannot will this to happen.  It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work.  So you might as well just go ahead and get started.”

“Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up.  But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.”

“The only thing to do when the sense of dread and low self-esteem tells you that you are not up to this is to wear it down by getting a little work done every day.”

“You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to create a place where your imagination can wander.  We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible.  So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand.  Another part of us thinks we’ll figure out a way to divert the ocean.  This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away.  I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.”

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.  They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life:  they feed the soul.  When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored.  We are given a shot at 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.”

Reviews of other books by Anne Lamott:
Plan B:  Further Thoughts on Faith
Some Assembly Required
Help Thanks Wow
Small Victories

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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