Anne Lamott on Writing and Life
One of the books that has shaped all the thoughts in my head is Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. From her I learned that neither life nor the creative process have to be consumed or endured in one giant chunk, but can instead be nibbled slice by slice, bit by bit, or indeed bird by bird in which ever way we can manage in that moment.
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Grief is not something we wear. We do not have to swallow it whole. It is a journey and every journey begins with a single step. It is a process. From fury, through sorrow, depression and finally acceptance. Four separate birds we can welcome or tolerate one a time.
A novel is not something we spit out. It is not one big chunk of our very soul spilled in a gush of champagne and vomit. No. It is something we tackle, word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter and we can walk away anytime we choose. To seek inspiration. Sanctuary. Or condolence for that which feels lost. The words which will not come.
The most precious relationships are not born in a chance meeting of minds or lustful bodies, but are grown and fed and nurtured like the babies we carry in our bellies. One day at a time. One surprising character trait revealed to our astonishment this month. Another the next. Something more to love.
Nor in the same vein, do we become our most authentic selves simply because we have decided that this should be so. Authenticity has to be embraced bird by bird too. For we do not know ourselves yet and have to reveal the pages of who we are carefully, surely, slowly. To ourselves. To those who care and those who do not.
And houses. We cannot build houses overnight. We build them brick by brick and when the frame of the house exists we layer it in love, one room at a time until it is home.
This then is what I learned from Anne Lammott. Patience. Endurance and tolerance. Throughout the worst days of my life I whispered “bird by bird” like a mantra to myself, because I knew, always knew, that this too would pass. That if I could just summon up enough spirit, bravado, or peace, I would survive.
Now Anne has more lesson to teach us in her recent TED Talk and she has delivered them with all the humor, humility and grace we hear in every word she writes. She is older now. Wiser. And she tells the kinds of truth that have us nodding our heads and spluttering with laughter…
I love her so.