10 Lessons from Ann Lamott's "Bird by Bird"

Ann Lamott's craft memoir "Bird by Bird" is an obvious favorite among writers. For a long time I'd never read it. And now I regret that I waited so long. This book is FANTASTIC and should be a must read on every writer's shelf. Here's the top 10 lessons every writer should learn from Lamott.

So I just finished reading BIRD BY BIRD by Ann Lamott and I'm SO IN LOVE WITH IT! This is definitely one of the best writing books I've read. If you're looking for practical tips as well as motivation to really get down to business, Lamott's your girl. Here are the 10 biggest takeaway lessons I got from the book. 

Lesson #1: If you want to write, you must actually sit down and write.

That's all. It sucks. But you must do it. 

‘But how?’my students ask. ‘How do you actually do it?’ You sit down, I say.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

THE WHOLE QUOTE: "You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind—a scene, a locale, a character, whatever—and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratchedlike listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk." - Ann Lamott

It's way too easy to get caught up in writing tips and advice and all these other crazy things on the internet all about writing. But the actual act of writing is hard. There's a lot of staring at the page. There's a lot of confusion and mind-wandering. There's a lot of excuses you could make to NOT write. 

But you've got to ignore them. You've got to power through it. 

The only way to TRULY be a writer is to sit down and write. You're not going to want to. You're going to procrastinate. And it's definitely not going to be rainbows and puppies every time. But this is a necessary thing that you have to do. So do it. 

Lesson #2: Stop writing only to publish. Write for all the other benefits, and publishing will come. 

They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get to where you want to be that way, I tell them. There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it. Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

Remember what made you fall in love with writing in the first place. I can nearly guarantee you didn't come to writing because you wanted all the fame and glory and money that comes with it (newsflash: this isn't really a thing). You probably came to writing because it was a way to relieve tension, or it allowed you to reveal truths about the world, or you had such a good eye for paying attention and noticing the small details in the world that you just HAD to write them down. Writing gives us access to emotions, to beauty, to life. Write for those reasons, and then you'll end up creating quality work. 

Another way of looking at this: Fall in love with the process, not the results. Fall in love with the journey, not the destination. Write for the sake of writing, not for the sake of publishing. 

Lesson #3: book 1 isn't the end

If you need more proof about the publishing thing, just keep in mind that 1 book isn't the end. There will be a 2nd, and a 3rd, and they'll all be just as hard to write. Different doubts will creep in and you've got to work with those too. This is an ongoing, never-ending fight.

The beginnings of a second or third book are full of spirit and confidence because you have been published, and false starts and terror because now you have to prove yourself again. People may find out that you were a flash in the pan, that it was all beginner’s luck. What I know now is that you have to wear out all that dread by writing long and hard and not stopping too often to admire yourself and your publishedness in the mirror.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

Lesson #4: Just get the first draft out.

Call it the "down" draft or the "shitty" draft or the "baby" draft - who cares. But get it out, just get it completely out of your system with all its messiness and craziness. And THEN deal with editing. 

I mean, just look at how often Lamott talks about it. 

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

It's a real thing. 

Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

Don't worry about quality. Don't think about publication. The only goal is to finish.

Start by getting something— anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

Lesson #5: STOP being a perfectionist. 

Seriously. It's not going to get you anywhere. 

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

THE WHOLE QUOTE: "It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it... Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground—you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move." - Ann Lamott

Lesson #6: Know who the heck you are so you can deal with who the heck everybody else is.

Your job is to present clearly your viewpoint, your line of vision. Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

Want some help with this one? This is so crucial that I made a whole 52-page ebook about figuring it out. Join the club and get your copy of "The Real·Good·Writer's DNA" ebook for FREE!

Lesson #7: It's OKAY to have bad days. It's normal sometimes.

Don't beat yourself up about it. Accept your bad day as simply that: one bad day. And then tomorrow, get up and get back to work. This is normal. This is what you must do. 

Also, an occupational hazard of writing is that you’ll have bad days. You feel not only totally alone but also that everyone else is at a party. But if you talk to other people who write, you remember that this feeling is part of the process, that it’s inevitable.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

Lesson #8: When you're having a bad day, or writer's block, let it go.

Your bad day will pass. Take some time to work through it, and then leave it alone. Let it go. Do something else, anything else. The muse will come back to you eventually.

When this being is ready to hand things up to you, to give you a paragraph or a sudden move one character makes that will change the whole course of your novel, you will be entrusted with it. So, in the meantime, while the tailor is working, you might as well go get some fresh air.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

THE WHOLE QUOTE: "Everything you need is in your head and memories, in all that your senses provide, in all that you’ve seen and thought and absorbed. There in your unconscious, where the real creation goes on, is the little kid or the Dr. Seuss creature in the cellar, arranging and stitching things together. When this being is ready to hand things up to you, to give you a paragraph or a sudden move one character makes that will change the whole course of your novel, you will be entrusted with it. So, in the meantime, while the tailor is working, you might as well go get some fresh air. Do your three hundred words, and then go for a walk. Otherwise you’ll want to sit there and try to contribute, and this will only get in the way. Your unconscious can’t work when you are breathing down its neck. You’ll sit there going, "Are you done in there yet, are you done in there yet?" But it is trying to tell you nicely, "Shut up and go away." - Ann Lamott

Lesson #9: Don't be afraid to tackle the hard stuff.

It's the writer's job to write the truth. It will be hard, but it's absolutely necessary. Tackle the hard stuff head on. Get through it. It's what you must do. 

The great writers keep writing about the cold dark place within, the water under a frozen lake or the secluded, camouflaged hole. The light they shine on this hole, this pit, helps us cut away or step around the brush and brambles; then we can dance around the rim of the abyss, holler into it, measure it, throw rocks in it, and still not fall in. It can no longer swallow us up. And we can get on with things.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

Seriously, if you're not writing to expose the hard stuff, why are you writing?

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

It's going to be hard. It may be emotionally traumatizing. But it is your JOB to get this out. Don't be afraid of it; be afraid of not sharing it with others so our society can learn, evolve, and grow. 

Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

Lesson #10: Remember why you write.

Remember all the beauty writing gives you. Fall in love with the process, not the results. And never forget it. Always remember why you write at all. 

This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

THE WHOLE QUOTE: "You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won’t really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we’ll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be." - Ann Lamott

When I suggest, however, that devotion and commitment will be their own reward, that in dedication to their craft they will find solace and direction and wisdom and truth and pride, they at first look at me with great hostility. You might think that I had just offered them membership in my embroidery club. They are angry people. This is why they write.
— Ann Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD

BONUS LESSON: If you're feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed, take it one step at a time, one "bird" at a time, and you'll eventually get it done. 

This writing thing doesn't happen overnight. You're not going to write a whole novel before you go to bed. Quit rushing through it. Quit putting harsh deadlines on yourself. Just take it easy, work through it carefully and at whatever pace you need. If you're consistent and follow the process, eventually it will get done. 

This is what Lamott's all about. This is her point. 

Now seriously go read BIRD BY BIRD by Ann Lamott RIGHT NOW and get super inspired and motivated by all her beautiful wisdom. I hesitated on reading this book for years, and I regret it. This is a game-changer. 

happy writing!

Have you ever read BIRD BY BIRD? What did you think? What do you think the best lessons are?