Bird by Bird
I read my first book on writing, Writing Down the Bones, during college. It was a gift from a friend, and turned out to be a critical turning point for me, as a writer. I brought it with me when I went abroad my junior year, which also happened to be when I really started taking my writing seriously. I had been keeping journals and notebooks off and on nearly my whole life, but I never considered writing as something I was particularly good at or invested in until I was nearly done with college. My year abroad was intensely lonely and I used writing as an escape and a coping mechanism. For the first time, I began to see the potential that writing could have in my life.
When I returned to the States, I enrolled in Beginning Creative Writing by special permission because I was a senior and the class wasn’t open to upperclassmen. Then I took Intermediate Creative Writing in my last semester. And then I pretty much stopped writing fiction, save for tiny bursts of effort here and there over the years.
Despite my focus on writing nonfiction, I didn’t stop wanting to really learn how to write fiction. So I bought more and more books on writing, mostly books full of writing prompts and exercises. Sometimes I would open them up, try out a few that weren’t too intimidating, write a few paragraphs, then close the book and leave it to collect dust. Since Writing Down the Bones, that’s how I’ve “read” books on writing.
I’d always heard that Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott was the book on writing. I can’t count how many times I’d walk into a bookstore, wander to the writing section, and pick it up, only to put it back down and walk away. I finally found a copy at my favorite used book store and bought it last spring. I read it in stages, mostly a chapter here and there on nights and weekends, a lot of it before going to bed for the night. It doesn’t contain so many writing exercises and prompts as general thoughts about writing as a process, and making it part of your life. I finished it at the beginning of the summer, and found I really loved it. Lamott is an incredibly compelling writer, but even more importantly, she’s like a teacher, a personal guide on the road to writing. She’s sassy and practical and sometimes a little corny. She’s irreverent and wise and funny. Her voice and personal experiences are really what lent this book the value it held for me.
I’m not saying that reading Bird by Bird has necessarily made me a better writer. That only comes with practice–so, so much practice. But there’s something to be gained from reading the advice and experiences of someone who’s been there, someone who’s still going through it, trying to find all the answers and sharing them with you.
I buy less writing books now, in an effort to actually spend more time writing, but I’m still a junkie for any kind of writing tips or advice I find online or in interviews with writers. It helps, knowing you’re not alone.
Have you read Bird by Bird? What did you think? What’s your favorite book on writing? Do you think they’re helpful?