Years ago, when I was panicked about finishing my dissertation – I had also just had a second child and was trying to find a job, so there was really nothing much to worry about – I broke down while talking to my mother and she just said, “Bird by bird. Bird by bird.” She knew I would know what she was talking about because it was she, years before that, who had given me Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Since then, the phrase has become a kind of replacement in my family for the empty, comforting clichés you offer to overwhelmed and anxious friends. And I can’t count the number of times when, confronted with the chest-tightening panic of a deadline, or overdue bills and no money in the checking account, or a living-room floor covered in toys and a sink full of dishes an hour before ten people come over for dinner, I’ve whispered to myself, “Bird by bird. Bird by bird.”
Unfortunately, although this is clearly a book with tremendous importance to me, I couldn’t remember any other lesson, even another idea, from its pages. So I reread it, and discovered that (of course – I mean, this is Annie Lamott we’re talking about) it’s full of little gems of wisdom like “bird by bird.” They aren’t all as pithy, but they’re all useful, and although the book is ostensibly about writing the advice contained within is probably as useful to a fork-lift operator or a pediatrician as it is to a writer. I’m generally skeptical of advice and self-help books – in fact I hate them, because who are you to tell me how to live? – but there is something magical about Anne Lamott’s attitude, her funny self-deprecation, that makes her advice better, wiser, and worth listening to.
Re-reading this book also awakened me to the benefits of academia (yes, really!), which benefits I have really lost sight of lately in the fog of impending unemployment and a perpetually horrible job market. So here it is: the one tremendous benefit of academia is that you must learn well and live by all of Anne Lamott’s best writing lessons or you’ll never make it, whether you know they’re her lessons or not. No one finishes a dissertation without writing “shitty first drafts,” as she calls them, quieting the voices of perfectionism, or creating short assignments to complete.
Sadly, it also sounds like the world of professional creative writing is not so different from academia. Lamott describes writing conferences where “students have come to me crying because the famous writer who critiqued their work that day had savaged it” and where colleagues’ harsh criticism made them feel like it was “the Lord of the Flies Writing Conference.” I can’t count anymore the number of times I’ve seen a senior academic ridicule or embarrass a junior faculty member or a graduate student at conferences – it’s almost a rite of passage to be asked an unkind or tangential question by an older professor, especially for young female academics. It doesn’t make it any better to know that this happens elsewhere, but it is always nice to know that assholes are everywhere, and not just in your own profession. There is comfort in the crowd. And one of the things that endears me to Anne Lamott and to Bird by Bird is her unrelenting compassion for us, writers and everyone else, who have been too harshly critiqued or embarrassed in front of colleagues or just left unsupported and unencouraged by those who should be our biggest cheerleaders. It’s also not a bad thing to be reminded to be one of those cheerleaders when you can.
One of the reasons I started this blog was just to sit down and write without any of the professional pressure I feel when I write academically, to choose my topics whimsically and write spontaneously about them without fear of judgment and to no particular end. I didn’t consciously remember it then, but it must have been Anne Lamott whispering in my ear. Her core advice about writing in Bird by Bird is to do it for yourself, without expectation of accolades or even publication. Like life, the act of writing itself is far more important than its outcome.