Memoir Writers’ Resources Series | Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Today’s post is the second in a series bringing you a sampling of the memoir writing resources I have uncovered as I write my memoir. The posts in these series will not appear on a regular schedule but randomly as I find time to work them in between a heavier writing schedule for my memoir. I hope what I share will be helpful and perhaps help you in finding a resource that makes a difference in your journey as a memoir writer. 

* * *

The idea of writing my memoir had been occupying certain parts of my mind for a few months. It was an afternoon I had reserved for browsing through a used bookstore nearby. When asked was I looking for something in particular, I may have responded with, “Something on writing, maybe writing memoir.”

Image via Goodreads
Image via Goodreads

The owner took me to an out-of-the-way corner in the back of the shop and pointed to shelves labeled “Everything We Have on Writing.” But he very pointedly said, “I’d recommend this one by Anne Lamott.” He proceeded to pull down Bird by Bird. I trusted his recommendation and bought the book for all of $4.95.

Everything on the back cover is true. I can assure you that each of the endorsements from the LA Times, NY Times Book Review and Seattle Times are true, proof having been found in reading Bird by Bird. And I assume the story about Lamott’s brother and their father is true, but I have no actual proof.

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.’

That was the best $4.95 I’d spent in quite some time. What I found between the covers of this tiny paperback were gems of writing wisdom, stellar advice, plied with a sense of humor often making me laugh aloud. Another resource I keep on my desk at all times. At times, Lamott appears cranky, yet kind in her admonitions of what to do vs. what not to do. But you find yourself liking her style no matter what her attitude seems. She is a generous benefactor of her instructions on getting the words down and understanding that nothing is perfect on that first draft. And, according to Lamott, that’s perfectly okay. She even throws in advice on life and grace and more.

Page 21 offers a chapter entitled “Shitty First Drafts.” The first paragraph gives the best look at writing for the first-time writer I could have found:

Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. 

That’s the kind of advice we all want when we’re starting out. And those are the pearls of wisdom that Anne Lamott gives in Bird by Bird, somewhat irreverently perhaps but it makes for easy reading and a fun trip to completing that first manuscript.

If you’re not familiar with Bird by Bird or Anne Lamott, you can learn more about them both by visiting her author page at The Steven Barclay Agency. You can also connect with Lamott via Facebook and Twitter.

Lamott’s books are available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and IndieBound.

Related articles

Living with Fear | Guest Post on An Untold Story with Sue Mitchell

I am honored to be with Sue Mitchell at An Untold Story sharing a portion of my story. I do hope you’ll follow me over to Sue’s blog to read the rest.Note: As Sue and I discussed this guest post and using an excerpt from my work-in-progress, I expressed thoughts about a memoir I had just read. In that life story, the writer’s experiences somewhat paralleled my own. The author’s words opened up new avenues of thought and reflection I’d never expected to experience. I’m writing my story hoping to touch others so that they too may begin to think, reflect and heal.

Living with Fear

Young children scare easily—a tough tone, a sharp reprimand, an exasperated glance,
a peeved scowl will do it. Little signs of rejection— you don’t have to
hit young children to hurt them—cut very deeply.
~ James L. Hymes, Jr.

For a child, living in fear has to be one of the worst emotional states to find in one’s environment. Living isn’t living when it’s done in fear of something or someone. And that’s how life was in my childhood home.

Fear was an everyday occurrence. Not the fear of physical harm. Instead, the fear of words, another’s emotions gone wild, punishment, the unexpected. A child is supposed to be happy, carefree. This is impossible under a cloud of fear. Like waiting for the thunder to roll, the clouds to burst open, then drenching, chilling rain falling on you.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “fear” as:

a:  an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger

b (1):  an instance of this emotion (2):  a state marked by this emotion.

Imagine living with these feelings day in, day out. Never knowing what to expect. Always on guard for that moment when tensions rise, tempers flare and you become the focus of anger and temperament.


July 3, 2012

Dear Mama,

Brad, almost age 3
Brad, almost age 3

I wonder if you remember anything special about cherry Jell-O.  Probably you remember making it quite often.  After all, it was Brad’s favorite!

BUT do you remember an afternoon when the worst thing that could have happened to a mother happened to you?

Lovingly, I’m sure, you had prepared another of those “humongous” pans of cherry Jell-O.  And you had carefully placed it in the refrigerator to do that gelling thing it was so clever at doing.

I don’t remember where you had gone after that, but little eyes were watching and big ears were listening.  As soon as they had perceived you were nowhere near the kitchen, Brad went to work.

Despite the fact that he was just passed three years old, he had somehow managed to learn how to reach up far enough to open the refrigerator door.  His eyes spied that pan of Jell-O, and Brad was going to have some.  And onto the floor it went!

As always, the minute you heard a crashing sound you were right there to see what one of us had done.  And there it was — red Jell-O all over your kitchen floor!

Read more here . . .

Sailing the Pacific on a Journey of Self-Discovery | A Review of Sailing Down the Moonbeam by Mary Gottschalk

Today on my book blog, Found Between the Covers, you will find my review of Mary Gottschalk’s memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam. A portion of the review is below. It is my hope that you’ll follow the link provided to read the rest.

* * *

Mary Gottschalk in her memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, traverses two journeys — a five-year sailing adventure and a journey of self-discovery. Leaving behind everything they know, Gottschalk and her husband, Tom, decide to put everything on hold and strike out on an adventure most of us never contemplate.

Aboard their vessel, Salieri, Gottschalk not only increases her sailing knowledge but she begins to understand the impact of her childhood on her personality and in her marriage. The difficulties faced on board Salieri from time to time because of equipment and weather are surmounted and dealt with easily.

Read the rest here . . .

Memoir Writers’ Resources Series | The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith

Today’s post begins a series bringing you a sampling of the memoir writing resources I have uncovered as I write my memoir. I hope what I share will be helpful and perhaps help you in finding a resource that makes a difference in your journey as a memoir writer.

* * *

Early in my digging for helpful resources to begin writing my memoir, I came across something called The Memoir Project in a Google search.

I clicked on the link and began my investigation of The Memoir Project site. I discovered that the site is an aggregate of memoir writing tips and tools from the site’s owner, Marion Roach Smith. Additionally, I found that Smith is the author of a companion book by the same title, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Standardized Text for Writing & Life.

To be honest, I always research a book I’m tempted to purchase by checking it out at my local library. And I did so with The Memoir Project. The book intrigued me enough that I bought it and keep it on my desk.

What I found as the premise for Smith’s teachings and personal beliefs about writing is best summed up in the following quotes taken from her introduction:

So let’s begin together, literally on the same page, and with a tacit agreement that from this moment on, we will write no exercises; we will write for real. With a goal.

. . .

When you write memoir, you’ll be writing what you know.

. . .

From this minute forward, your intent is to write with purpose.

A short book at 112 pages Smith provides, I believe, a good overview of writing memoir. For me both the website and book have become meaningful resources for my writing.

In addition to being an author and teacher of memoir writing, Smith also maintains a blog and provides a manuscript editing service.

I encourage you to check out The Memoir Project site and the varied resources available as well as taking a look at the book, which is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound, or perhaps your local library shelves it.

There are many valuable resources available for memoir writers. The Memoir Project is just one. So I urge you to find resources that feel like a good fit for you. There is no one perfect resource that fits every writer.

Do you have a favorite memoir writing resource or resources?

If so, I hope you’ll share them in a comment below.

Related articles