This month Sue Wallman shares Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Age 23, I wanted my life to be bigger. I took myself off to live and work in Paris even though I didn’t speak much French. I somehow managed to find a job on the support staff of an American newspaper and made just about enough money to live. After a couple or so years, I decided to come back to the UK – via South America. I met Nancy in Ecuador. She lived in California and was about forty years older than me. She remained a friend until she died four years ago. She knew I loved writing and one day in 1998 (when I was 31), out of the blue, a book arrived from her. It was written by a fellow Californian, and it had a huge impact on me.

The book was by Anne Lamott and was called Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I’d never read a book about writing which was so conversational. To be truthful, I hadn’t read anything about writing at all unless it was related to A-level or degree-level English literature.

The title, Bird by Bird, refers to the time Lamott’s ten-year-old brother was in despair at the overwhelming task of doing a project on birds he’d left to the last minute. Lamott’s father put his arm round her brother’s shoulder and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
That’s what Lamott suggests we do with writing – take it one step at a time. As a magazine journalist, I’d had a handful of short stories published but I had ambitions to write something longer. It felt like a far-off dream.

Another big concept of Lamott’s is the “shitty first draft”. She says, “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” It is about getting the words out of your head and on to the page. There is a whole chapter on perfection “which is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” As she always does, Lamott uses anecdotes and thoughts about life to make her point: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” First drafts, according to Lamott, are 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.”

In 1998 when I was still messing about with writing, I was clueless about plot. I read the chapter on plot and realised that the climax of a book needs to feel inevitable, even though the reader might be taken by surprise. It has taken me many, many years to understand plot and it’s still the area I find most tricky, but this book taught me the basic formula for drama: set-up, build-up and pay-off, and that there has to be forward momentum “or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable.”

I’ve read other books on the craft of writing since. The two that have particularly helped me are Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke and The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr.

When I re-read Bird By Bird recently, twenty-two years on, it felt dated. There’s a lot of padding and a fair bit about God which might be off-putting to some, but I was reminded why this book spoke to me so much – it’s funny, encouraging and human. From the struggles to write, feelings of jealousy when fellow writers are doing well (she quotes Clive James’s poem The book of my enemy has been remaindered/ And I am pleased), to the insights gained as her best friend Pammy is dying of cancer. She also put into words for me why books are important:

“Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things you don’t get in real life – wonderful lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.”


Sue Wallman won The Woman’s Prize for Fiction First Chapter Award in 2013, and has gone on to win many other awards for her Young Adult thrillers, the first of which, Lying About Last Summer was published in 2016 and selected for the WHSmith/Zoella Book Club. This was followed by See How They Lie, Your Turn to Die and Dead Popular. In 2017 she was invited to speak at Hay Festival about capturing the complex emotions of adolescence. She currently combines writing with working in a secondary school library.
Follow Sue on Twitter: @SueWallman

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