Sound Advice



November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, if you prefer an acronym that is just as cumbersome as the full name). Every year I resolve to participate, and every year I fail. I have three novels in various stages of development floating around my hard drive that were conceived during NaNoWriMo, from a zygote of a plot outline to if-I-just-had-a-housekeeper-and-four-weeks-off-from-work-this-thing-would-be-done. But a housekeeper isn’t in the budget and I’ll never get four consecutive weeks off work without giving birth to an actual baby, so I’m going to take advantage of this man-made literary event to make myself buckle down and at least try.

Naturally, I have to procrastinate first, but at least I’m procrastinating intelligently (or so I tell myself) by reviewing Anne Lamott’s sublime Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Writerly types have been recommending this book to me for the past 15 years, but I was slow to embrace it. Even though I was willing to pursue an MFA in creative writing, for which I will be in debt the rest of my life, I had a perverse reluctance to plunk down $13 for a book of writing advice. It seemed too self-helpy, too provincial—something only a sucker would buy. And I was no sucker, me with my MFA.

Eventually I got the book. I don’t remember how; it might have been a gift. And then it sat on my shelf for several years until I found myself with insomnia and nothing new to read.

And, oh.

Lamott's writing advice would serve any storyteller well: She talks about how to think about plot, how to write convincing dialogue, how to develop characters and settings, and how to get over your perfectionism and put that shitty first draft behind you so you can get to the good stuff. There’s some practical writer-specific advice as well: Do your research, let people read your work, don’t give in to writer’s block. The facts themselves are not revolutionary, but there is something revelatory about the way she lays them out. (“I no longer think of [writer’s block] as a block. I think that is looking at the problem from the wrong angle. If your wife locks you out of the house, you don’t have a problem with your door.”) Lamott is a terrific teacher.

But the real gold is in Part Two: The Writing Frame of Mind. (This is the on Life part of the book.) I wish these 25 pages were required reading for everyone. Lamott talks about the importance of being mindful, paying attention, and listening to your intuition. She talks about radio station KFKD (“K-Fucked”), the corrosive loop of doubt and worry that we all have to learn how to tune out in order to concentrate on the work at hand. And she has a real gem of a chapter called “The Moral Point of View.” I’m always heartened when someone can discuss morality, with nuance, in a nonreligious context that is neither a philosophy textbook or a legal judgment.

“A moral position is not a message,” she writes. There’s something blissfully ironic about being able to sum up an argument for the un-summarizable of reality in seven words, but then, life is complicated, and Lamott gets that, too.


TMN Editor Liz Entman (they/them) has lived in St. Louis, New York, and Nashville. She sweats the small stuff, like hyphens and commas, and has a day job, but won’t bore you with the details. More by Liz Entman

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