some sound advice on writing

Bird by Bird coverBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anne Lamott
Anchor (December 18, 2007), 258 pages
originally published by Pantheon Books, 1994
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $8.69


Writing Your Story photoWriting Your Story (video recording of a one-day workshop)
Joyce Maynard
streaming video $39.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
(if it’s not on sale don’t worry – the sale price will come around again)
or stream with a Wondrium subscription


I have a long history with both Anne Lamott and Joyce Maynard. All three of us are the same age.

I first encountered Joyce Maynard after I graduated from Pitzer College in 1975 when I found her book Looking Back while I was working at B. Dalton Bookseller. I loved her take on the culture of the late sixties and the early seventies and believed we had a very similar worldview. Later, I discovered she wanted to be the “voice of her generation,” but did not hold those views at all. I felt betrayed, to say the least. I was disgruntled by her commentaries on the CBS Radio opinion segment Spectrum, in which she took the conservative viewpoint. Maynard was, of course, the mysterious woman who dropped out of Yale to live with J. D. Salinger, something she wrote about twenty-five years later in her memoir At Home in the World. Over the years and especially having read At Home in the World I have come to forgive her.

I first became acquainted with Ann Lamott when she was a regular guest on the San Francisco public radio program West Coast Live in the mid-1990s. She raised her son Sam as a single mom and wrote about it in her book Operating Instructions. Sam was born just a year before our nephew Race, and Terry’s sister also raised Race as a single mother. Lamott wrote her book Bird by Bird as a distillation of what she taught in her writing classes. She has also written several books on spirituality and faith, with which I have resonated.

It occurred to me that if I am serious about continuing to develop my writing skills I ought to read Bird by Bird. I have no idea why I didn’t read it long ago. Since I have a Wondrium subscription I decided to read Lamott’s book and watch Maynard’s workshop simultaneously. After all, these two women have something in common that I lack: they have both published books. I decided I had something to learn from both of them.

Lamott and Maynard agree on a lot, but they disagree on one significant point. Lamott takes the view that most teachers of writing espouse: if you’re stuck, just start writing and clean it up later. Maynard does not believe in that approach. She believes that you’ll never be able to properly clean it up, so you should carefully consider what you want to say before you write.

They both advocate writing in small chunks. Lamott talks about one-inch picture frames and Maynard tells her students to use “containers.” They both make clear that you need to keep your readers’ interest. Lamott was fortunate to have a father who was a published author, and his agent was willing to indulge Lamott by looking at her work. He returned one piece, however, with the comment that Lamott seemed to think that everything she did was interesting. Maynard emphasizes that not all details are equally interesting. She says that it’s probably not worth noting that your English professor had brown eyes. However, if he smoked a cigar in class, that might be worth mentioning.

The focus of Bird by Bird is on fiction, so much of the book doesn’t apply to my nonfiction writing. But there is a lot I was able to take away from it nonetheless. Maynard focuses her class on memoir, so she provided me a lot of useful material.

Both Lamott and Maynard take a similar approach to getting your work published. Lamott says:

quoteWriting 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.

Maynard tells the class much the same thing. It’s not about getting published; it’s about the opportunity to express yourself. She tells the workshop that getting published will not make you rich. Recorded in 2018, she tells the group that she drives a 1995 Honda Civic.

I learned a lot from both women, and they no doubt have more to teach me about writing.

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