Anne Lamott started out as a fiction writer, but she hit the big time with her 1994 nonfiction work Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. This work was a sleeper hit among writerly types, who clung to her encouraging (and bossy) words about keeping your butt in the chair and writing s—-y first drafts.
The title comes from a family story:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
Bird by Bird is a perennial–if modest–bestseller, but this work earns cult classic status for the sheer number of struggling writers who attest to not only reading the book a half dozen times but even carrying Saint Anne’s book on their person when they’re battling Resistance. That’s devotion.
My favorite quote in Bird by Bird exemplifies Lamott’s tough love:
“All good writers write [terrible first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.”
Have you read it? Loved it? Carried it around in your pocket? Tell us in comments.
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This is the twenty-fifth post in a series, 31 Days of Cult Classics. You can click here to see a list of all the posts, updated everyday in the month of October.