Revisiting Bird by bird and writing inspiration

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~

The original post was written in celebration of writers and writing, including over a year of weekly blog posts on writing essentials and English fundamentals here.

Many have focused on grammatical and usage errors, including language myths and points of contention among writers and usage experts. Any of these posts could be of use to some writers at some time – when they need to check a usage rule (comma splices), to become clear on confusing words (disgruntled and inflammable), or to understand writing language myths (splitting infinitives).

A number have focused on the practical aspects of being a writer, including identifying oneself as a writer and developing a practice; examining one’s style and voice; as well as recognizing sentence construction and rhythm. The most recent revisited posts represent a collection of ones on writing and style.

Continuing that attention, this post was inspired by a friend and former Writing Workshop participant who recently discovered the Anne Lamott book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She felt that Lamott was writing to her personally and that this “wonderful book” should be required reading for writers.

Bird by Bird is over 25 years old (the paperback version was published in 1995), and it is often used by writers and writing programs, including the Princeton (University) Writing Program, which quotes Lamott on its program webpage and says “Independent work doesn’t mean going it alone. We’ll help you take it bird by bird . . . ” (

An internet search turns up lots of references to the book, including other blogs, a Goodreads site with 391 quotes from the book, and even a SparkNotes study guide. (SparkNotes is like that “original study guide” CliffsNotes, which was first produced as paper booklets beginning in 1958 and later as online ones. SparkNotes was started by Harvard students in 1999 and is now owned by Barnes & Noble.)

I use the eponymous quote, the quote that gives the book its name, in my Writing Workshop and in other classes where students need encouragement about facing what appears to be an overwhelming task:

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. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, 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.’”

Though there is a lot of good advice and information in the small book, this quote is a quintessential one for beginning writers and for any writer beginning a task which may seem insurmountable. Many authors talk of the terror the blank page or screen, of not having anything to say or not knowing how to say (write) it. Even experienced and published writers say that having written one book does not necessarily mean they can write the next one. For instance, Gene Wolfe, in his introduction to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, says, “You never learn to write a novel. You only learn to write the novel you’re on.”

There is a lot of advice out there. I gave some of my own in the post on becoming a writer. In particular, I shared the advice and practice of writers. This included Naomi Epel who created The Observation Deck: A Toolkit for Writers, which consists of prompts and chapters with discussion and help in specific areas.  For that post, I talked about her prompt and help, called “Ribe Tuchus,” a Yiddish expression which means “rub your bottom on the chair.” Many writers speak of the importance of simply sitting down to the task, or gluing one’s bottom to the seat.

Epel has another prompt that’s a favorite of mine which I share with my students: “Set realistic goals.” I never tire of reading her chapter on this prompt, which highlights Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip. Adams dreamed of becoming a famous cartoonist but realized he would not achieve this unless he set some realistic goals, so he “told himself that he must simply get one cartoon published somewhere, anywhere, before he died” (36). The rest is history.

Are you setting your expectations too high? Are your goals realistic? Follow the advice of writer and creativity consultant Julia Cameron and do something for your art everyday—it could be organizing a writing space (a writer’s nest), buying supplies like favorite pens or handsome journals, or setting a realistic writing goal (writing 6 lines or 5 minutes or 3 pages every day or “your everyday,” the day/times you can write). In other words, approach your writing and its many tasks “bird by bird.” Most find that once they begin, they continue, motivated by the momentum and sometimes by seeking help from resources like a book of prompts or writing advice or from writing classes and workshops.

The Observation Deck is one resource, but there are lots of other prompts and inspiration for writing, both online and in books. When you find one that works for you, as my former student did with Bird by Bird, go with it. Writing advice out there is plentiful and often contradictory, so you need to be selective in what you chose to invest your time and money in. Most importantly, trust your self (your intuition, your self-knowledge): if the advice, technique, or class doesn’t “resonate” with you, don’t take it on, but move on. You may find inspiration from others, or you may just develop your own process. And this is all that matters—you as the author, the writer, being happy with the choices and methods you chose.

Whatever you your goals, whatever your vision for your writing – whether collecting personal stories or privately “publishing” (producing) family histories; publishing online or on your own (self-publishing, independently at your own expense); or publishing with traditional houses –don’t give up on your dreams or vision. Keep in mind one of my favorite quotes from May Sarton: “Hold on, trust your talent, and work hard.”

As I say in my About page, my mission for this blog and website is to provide authors with writing essentials and English fundamentals. Recently, another former student who is self-publishing through BookBaby/Amazon, asked me to look at some edits and comments by the BookBaby team. I was able to interpret and explain their editorial marks and decisions, and most importantly to point him to several posts so that he could get a larger context.

For instance, as a scientist, he does not use the serial comma, but his editor put it in (Oxford comma blog); as a native of Britain, he uses the British style of using single quotation marks and putting commas and periods outside of the quotation marks, but these were marked as error (mechanical error with a quotation blog). This realizes one of my goals – to be able to send my students and participants to specific and quick resources, rather than have them resort to grammar books and guides where they have to wade through a lot of information to get their questions answered.

My vision is also to create a space and community where writers can come together for support and for polishing their work; in other words, to create an online Writing Workshop community for members to share their work and experiences with others. In addition, I would like to provide resources that go beyond the basic Writing Workshop in order to offer more in-depth help, whether it be in a genre (short story, novel, memoir, screenplay, personal essay, non-fiction work) or in various aspects of the craft (description, dialogue, characterization, structure, voice, point of view, revision).

What is your experience is as a writer? Where do you find inspiration? Where do you need help? What subjects you would like to explore in more depth?  Post your answers in the comments, or send me a message via the Contact page. And keep on writing your vision.

(Sources referenced or cited in this post include Bird by Bird, Princeton Writing Program, Goodreads, SparkNotes, The Observation Deck, Julia Cameron, and BookBaby/Amazon.)

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