Lamott Bird by Bird Notes

Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York: Anchor Books.


  •  "...writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around (p. xii)."
  • "I understood immediately the thrill of seeing oneself in print. It provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist (p. xiv)."

Chapter 1: Getting Started

  • "...the amount of material may be so overwhelming that it can make your brain freeze (p. 4)."
  • "You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively (p. 6)."
  • "Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won't do any of those things; you'll never get in that way (p. 13)."

Chapter 2: Short Assignments

  • "...all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame (p. 17)."
  • "We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment (p. 20)."

Chapter 3: Shitty First Drafts

  • "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper (p. 25)."

Chapter 4: Perfectionism

  • "...clutter and mess show us that life is being lived (p. 28)."
  • "Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are an artists true friend (p. 32)."

Chapter 5: School Lunches

Chapter 6: Polaroids

  • "You can't - and, in fact, you're not supposed to - know exactly what that picture is going to look like until it has finished developing. First you just point at what has your attention and take the picture (p. 39)."

Chapter 7: Character

  • "One of the things you want to discover as you start out is what each person's acre looks like. What is the person growing, and what sort of shape is the land in? This knowledge may not show up per se in what you write, but the point is that you need to find out as much as possible about the interior life of the people you are working with (p. 45)."
  • "Bad things happen to good characters, because our actions have consequences, and we do not all behave perfectly all the time (p. 45)."
  • "Having a likeable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal (p. 50)."

Chapter 8: Plot

  • "I say don't worry about plot. Worry about the characters. Let what they say or do reveal who they are, and be involved in their lives, and keep asking yourself, Now what happens? The development of relationship creates plot (p. 55)."
  • "Let someone do this with your manuscripts, help you get rid of the twists in the plot that are never going to work no matter how hard you try or how many passes you make at it (p. 58)."
  • "There must be movement (p. 59)."
  • "... ABDCE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending (p. 62)."
  • Don't force the plot. Instead let it evolve organically through your characters.

Chapter 9: Dialogue

  • In fictional writing... "You're not reproducing actual speech - you're translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words (p. 65)."
  • "In any case, good dialogue gives us the sense that we are eavesdropping, that the author is not getting in the way. Thus, good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is not said (p. 67)."
  • "Your reading should confirm what you've observed in the world (p. 69)."
  • "I wish there were an easier, softer way, a shortcut, but this is the nature of most good writing: that you find out things as you go along. Then you go back and rewrite. Remember: no one is reading your first drafts (p. 71)."

Chapter 10: Set Design

Chapter 11: False Starts

  • "...these old people are no longer useful in any traditional meaning of the word, they are there to be loved unconditionally, like trees in the winter (p. 82)."
  • "You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness, and then some surprising connections appear (p. 84)."

Chapter 12: Plot Treatment

Chapter 13: How Do You Know When You're Done?

Chapter 14: Looking Around

  • "I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world - present and in awe (p. 100)."
  • If only... "Mostly things are not that way, that simple and pure, with so much focus given to each syllable of life as life sings itself (p. 102)."

Chapter 15: The Moral Point of View

  • "But you have to believe in your position, or nothing will be driving your work. If you don't believe in what you are saying, there is no point in your saying it (p. 106)."
  • "So a moral position is not a message. A moral position is a passionate caring inside you (p. 108)."

Chapter 16: Broccoli

  • Listen to your inner voice.
  • "You need your broccoli in order to write well (p. 111)." Broccoli = inner voice.
  • "You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side (p. 112)."
  • "Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly p. 114)."

Chapter 17: Radio Station KFKD

  • When negative thoughts arise, stop, breathe, and begin again.

Chapter 18: Jealousy

  • "Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things (p. 125)."
  • Sometimes you need to take sabbaticals from certain relationships.

Chapter 19: Index Cards

Chapter 20: Calling Around

Chapter 21: Writing Groups

Chapter 22: Someone to Read Your Drafts

Chapter 23: Letters

  • Letters can help people get started. They can serve as a way of speaking to your audience rather than feeling so overwhelmed.

Chapter 24: Writer's Block

  • "Life is like a recycling center, where al the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning (p. 181)."

Chapter 25: Writing a Present

Chapter 26: Finding Your Voice

Chapter 27: Giving

  • "There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver (p. 203)."

Chapter 28: Publication

  • "...if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you are lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent (p. 214)."

Chapter 29: The Last Class

  • "Tell the truth as you understand it (p. 226)."