The patron saint of struggling writers

The patron saint of struggling writers

31 days of cult classics | Modern Mrs Darcy

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.

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott. 31 Days of Cult Classics | Modern Mrs Darcy

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.”

Lamott’s latest work is coming out on Tuesday, October 29. It’s called: Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, and my copy is pre-ordered. Find more info here.

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.


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  1. Jennifer H says:

    I’m a reader not a writer (although I can’t say I really struggled with school writing assignments), but I know that my son needs to hear your favorite quote because he is so easily frustrated by the writing assignments at school. I have place a request at our local library. Thank you for the recommendation.

    • Anne says:

      I hope that book’s for YOU and not for Samuel. I love Anne Lamott, but my kids are still at the stage where “the bad s-word” is “stupid,” and I’d like to prolong that for a bit longer. 🙂

  2. Sue says:

    I definitely read it, but I need to read it again…and again…and again. I follow her on Facebook and she has some amazing insights about writing and life, in general.

  3. When I’m sixty, I hope I’m a lot like Anne Lamott. She’s so honest and real, and she just understands the messiness of life. I love Bird by Bird. I’ve actually been thinking about some kind of wall art, using the bird story. My husband and I say, “Bird by Bird, buddy,” to each other often.

  4. Jeannie says:

    I loved Bird by Bird: I always remember the line, “Good writing is about telling the truth.” Anne Lamott is kind of nutty, but she sure is truthful; and she gives us permission to be, too.

  5. Sarah says:

    I love this book. Since I teach college writing classes, I always teach “Sh*@tty First Drafts.” Another great quote: you know you have made God in your own image when he hates all of the same people you do.

  6. MJ says:

    Anne Lamott is my spirit animal. My copy of Bird by Bird was highlighted and notated until it fell completely apart. I’m not sure that she’s the first person to say it, but my favorite quote from the book is (paraphrased) “You own what happened to you. If people wanted you to write warmly about them they should have behaved better.”

  7. Leigh Kramer says:

    I’ve never carried it around in my pocket but I LOVE this book. I regularly reread the last couple of paragraphs when I’m in need of inspiration or affirmation. God bless, St. Anne.

  8. When I found this book in Barnes and Noble sevenish years ago, I was still afraid to tell people I liked to write (let alone call myself a writer). I was almost afraid to buy the book. So I wrote my name in it, right there in the store–so I’d have to buy it.
    So, so glad I did. It’s my favorite one on writing, besides Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Love that you mentioned it here :).

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