Kate Morris grew up in London and still lives there today. She is a journalist and the author of three novels. Seven Days One Summer was published in July 2011 by Short Books and chosen by Tatler Magazine and The Express as the hottest book of the summer. Kate was until recently a columnist for The Times, writing about marriage; she is a featured blogger for Mumsnet and writes a more personal blog as well. In this post she discusses Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.
Kate Morris on Bird by Bird: Some Instructions On Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
When I was asked to write about a book for this blog, I thought about all the novels, novelists and poets that have been important to me over the years, from The Catcher in the Rye, which my mother gave me when I was fifteen, to The Great Gatsby, which I studied for A level and have read about five times, always struck by the ominous tone. Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney have written poems that have reduced me to tears. Keats really moved me when I was a schoolgirl. I devoured all of the novels by Jean Rhys when I was in my early twenties, struck by the desperation and despair of her novels. Helen Simpson's short stories are clever and ambiguous, and they inspire me. Last year, amongst the many novels I read and enjoyed, two stand out - Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, which seems to me to be the perfect novel, and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, already reviewed in this series. Ian McEwan, Tolstoy, Sebastian Barry and Alan Hollinghurst make me feel I should give up writing, because their prose and plots are so perfect. There are so many novels I could write about, it is impossible to choose.
That is why I have chosen, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions On Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, because it's non-fiction, and I have been dipping into it over the last few months and so it's fresh in my mind. Lamott is the author of seven novels and five non-fiction works, including Bird by Bird, a classic in its genre, first published in 1995. The book came to me quite by chance. I was at a book club dinner a few months ago, and one of the women was about to give the host this book as a present, but it turned out the host already had it by her bed. I was gloomy about where my writing was going, as my third book had just come out and I was stuck in the middle of my fourth. Bird by Bird sounded like something I should read, particularly as writers tend to spend a great deal of time alone and from time to time need to hear what other writers have to say.
The book offers candid advice and guidance to writers, mixed with an autobiographical account of Lamott's own life; she also teaches writing and claims that apart from writing she is unemployable. The style is frank and humorous and occasionally becomes so relaxed it's as if she is having a conversation with the reader, which some may find irritating. What she writes can make me smile, or feel that little bit more optimistic and encouraged, and much of what she says gives the reader, particularly someone who writes, a sense of relief. I, too, kept it by my bed, or in my bag; it's great to dip into on a bus or in the tube or just before bed.
Lamott explains how she came to find a title for the book - a story that advises us how to approach the huge task of writing a book. When she was young, her ten-year-old brother was trying to get a report on birds written, he'd had three months to do it in and it was now due the next day. He was close to tears, surrounded by books on birds, and immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead of him. 'Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around (his) shoulder and said, bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'
The chapter that really struck me is called 'Shitty First Draft'. Lamott claims that all good writers, write shitty first drafts:
This is how they end up with second good drafts and terrific third drafts... People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting published and maybe even doing well financially and think they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars... but this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and no one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.
Reading this really helped me get back to my own shitty first draft. The end result of this chapter is to make the writer or aspiring writer feel that writing a bad first draft is a stage that we must all go through if we are going to have a good end result, or any result at all.
And finally this line is comforting too: 'Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it.' This is something I sometimes worry about when I'm at my desk looking down at the street below.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]