7 November 2019

Selected quotes from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

It has taken me a while to get around to reading this. I did have a couple of false starts with it but, it’s such a stated classic, I wanted to persist. I’ve written down some of the quotes I highlighted. It is particularly well suited to fiction writers but there is plenty here for everyone. It’s not all my cup of char, some of the stories feel just a little strained, but Lamott does write beautifully and very honestly.

One reviewer on Amazon UK commented on the number of mentions of God. I don’t usually cope well with that either but BbB is certainly not a book that’s trying to convert. It just happens to be a big part of Lamott’s life. She’s also quite happy to be a potty-mouthed and demonstrably flawed person - and you have to love her for that.

Selected quotes

  • Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.

  • If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.

  • Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more.

  • Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer.

  • To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence. Time is so full for people who are dying in a conscious way, full in the way that life is for children. They spend big round hours.

  • I told her I thought she’d been very honest, and that this was totally commendable, but that you don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it, too.

  • So much of writing is about sitting down and doing it every day, and so much of it is about getting into the custom of taking in everything that comes along, seeing it all as grist for the mill. This can be a very comforting habit, like biting your nails.

  • I taped Hillel’s line to the wall by my desk: I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.” The way I dance is by writing.

  • My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things.

  • Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.

  • Sometimes intuition needs coaxing, because intuition is a little shy. But if you try not to crowd it, intuition often wafts up from the soul or subconscious, and then becomes a tiny fitful little flame. It will be blown out by too much compulsion and manic attention, but will burn quietly when watched with gentle concentration.

  • If you have a message, as Samuel Goldwyn said, send a telegram.

  • To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one.

  • Fix instead on who your people are and how they feel toward one another, what they say, how they smell, whom they fear. Let your human beings follow the music they hear, and let it take them where it will.

  • Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake. Find a way to express this discovery in action, and then let your people set about finding or holding onto or defending whatever it is

  • Don’t worry about it. More will be revealed over time. In the meantime, can you see what your people look like? What sort of first impression do they make? What does each one care most about, want more than anything in the world? What are their secrets? How do they move, how do they smell? Everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is—so who is this person? Show us.

  • it may help to remember this great line of Geneen Roth’s: that awareness is learning to keep yourself company

  • Sometimes it actually gives them hope, and hope, as Chesterton said, is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate.


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