By Ellen Leventhal
Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.
What a simple and brilliant statement. Anne Lamott (my new pretend BFF whom I have never met) tells a story of a time when her brother was overwhelmed with the enormity of a task before him. He had to write a report on birds that was due the next day, and he was far from ready to tackle that task. This young man was surrounded with books and paper, but had no idea how to get started. The task was huge, but his wise father put his arms around the boy and gave him some sage advice. “Bird by bird, buddy,” he said. “Just take it bird by bird.” So simple. So brilliant.
That statement is the basis for Anne Lamott’s bestseller, Bird by Bird; Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Ms. Lamott (Oh, since she’s my pretend BFF, I’m going to call her Anne).. Anne starts her book on writing talking about reading. She came from a family where reading was a priority and going to the library was a weekly event. Her father was both a reader and a writer. Makes sense to me. In my world, reading and writing are two sides of the same coin. I read about writing, and I write about reading. And writing. They can’t really be split. In fact, according to Anne, “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” She’s really smart, that imaginary pal of mine.
As a teacher, I encourage my kids to mark up their books. Read, think, and write. I want to see notes and highlighting and question marks all over their books. Of course, there is the question of the ownership of said books, so I hand out scads of sticky notes in the beginning of the school year. I wouldn’t want the kids to deface someone else’s property. I admit that I’ve seen my share of body parts drawn on these notes, but I have also seen lots of great notes. One of my favorite things is when a sticky note (or a margin) has a comment relating a passage to another book. One of my favorite notes was “Like when Leslie dies in Bridge to Terabithia, but this guy didn’t do something stupid.” This was a real sticky note comment. To be honest, that remark took about five sticky notes, but still, I like it. The next thing that happened almost brought tears to my eyes. Not because I was still mourning Leslie Burke (although every time I read that book I keep hoping for a different ending), but because this child then said, “Look at the poem I wrote about it.” Reading and writing intertwined again.
Bird by Bird has great advice for life in general, but I started reading it to get me through some sticky patches in my writing life. Anne’s insight has gotten me unstuck when writer’s block was my constant companion. Her small assignments helped me find focus in my manuscripts. And her tip of looking at first drafts as Polaroid pictures has validated my writing. She says that writing a first draft is like a watching a Polaroid picture develop. You’re not really supposed to know what it will look like until it finishes developing. Since I’m not always sure where my characters will take me, this is comforting. Sometimes once the Polaroid is developed, I find a minor character lurking behind a major one and decide his life story is the one begging to be told.
Reading, writing, and life in general can be difficult at times. Anne Lamott talks about “Sh*&^y first drafts.” (Only she spells the whole word out. This is a G rated blog.) Let’s think about writing as life. Just like first drafts, we should be allowed do overs in life. And if we take life challenges one step at a time, bird by bird, maybe they won’t seem insurmountable.
Thanks, pretend BFF. Whereas some “self-help” books, tell the reader to get up off her chair and just do something, this book, filled with humor and insight has encouraged me to get back in my chair and write. And just take it bird by bird.