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Christy Catherine Marshall

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June 7, 2010

I’ve been browsing through some of my favorite writing books recently, as I’m trying to make the transition from writing nonfiction to fiction. I wanted to share with you one of my favorites, Bird by Bird. If you’ve never read this book, you’re in for a treat!

Below is the review I wrote for Amazon, in 2005:

I absolutely love this book. I wish I could have read it years ago when I was in college, laboring through my English major, taking myself way too seriously. It should be required reading for everyone who is fascinated with words on a page.

It’s the kind of book you keep along beside your dictionary and thesaurus, and whatever else you keep as a reference. It helps just knowing that Anne is there, between the pages, poking fun at you as you agonize over a first draft. You look at her book cover, and you know what she’s thinking, what she’d tell you if she were sitting beside your computer.

“Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t — and, in fact, you’re not supposed to — know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing,” she writes.

Before I read BIRD BY BIRD, I always had this fear of getting started with a story. Well, I guess I still do, but at least I know Lamott’s take on it. I love research, gathering information and quotes. I love talking to people about what they’re passionate about, people I interview for a story. And the books! And underlined sentences! And articles and papers and poems and scriptures and movies and spilled cups of coffee. Just one more thing, I tell myself. Then I’ll start…

After reading this book, I know it’s okay to feel that way, but the way to write is just to get something on paper. At some point in life, you have to move beyond your private journal to connect with an audience because there’s someone out there who may understand you, and you’ll never know if you don’t try.

Lamott tells her writing students on the first day of class that “good writing is about telling the truth.” She says “an author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?”

That’s all we can do as writers, is to keep trying to tell our versions of the truth, as we move around in our little worlds surrounded by the Truth.

The title of the book, BIRD BY BIRD, came about from an episode in her brother’s life. He’d put off starting a report on birds, which was due the next day at school. Surrounded by books, paper, pencils, and “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead,” her brother had sunk into despair. Then Anne’s father sat down next to him, put his arm around her brother’s shoulder and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

That’s a magnificent philosophy for anything, for life. Take it slowly, one step at a time. I think I could sit here and quote every page of this book, but if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go start reading it through again.

(Thank you, Lauren, for telling me about it!)

Note: This book does contain profanity, which might be offensive to some readers.

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