Anyone familiar with the writer Anne Lamott (see the side bar for a link to her Wikipedia page) knows the phrase “bird by bird.” In 1995, Lamott released a book of the same title, and since then, it has been lauded by writers all over the country (perhaps elsewhere as well) as one of the best books about writing you could get your hands on. It was the second one I ever read, and of all the writing books I’ve read by this point, Bird by Bird remains my favorite. Here is the blurb on the back of the book:
“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.'”
The lesson is obvious. When you’ve got some huge, overwhelming project ahead of you, focusing on the forest instead of the trees will destroy you. Your willpower will be shot. The project will flatten your motivation and make you recoil from its reality, because it is much, much too big for such a little person as you.
But those who follow Lamott’s “bird by bird” principle see roots, compact and loose soil, rich green leaves, squirrels scampering across branches. They know they don’t have all the time in the world, but they realize they have enough of it to conquer the forest. They don’t need to think about how many miles make up the entire wooded area. Packing it all into a week, or a month, is not doable. They’ll take their time with the journey, but they won’t miss a day of visiting the forest, either. And every second they spend exploring will involve hard work.
Sometimes people who don’t write ask me how I can have the patience to write a book. It’s not so much patience as it is persistence. Plus, the people who ask me don’t realize that they (or most of them) take things bird by bird subconsciously; they just don’t call it patience. Accumulating enough knowledge during a college class to pass the exam at the end is bird by bird–there’s a reason the professor doesn’t distribute the exam on day one. Preparing a meal is bird by bird. That’s why you don’t prepare your Thanksgiving dishes separately and at various paces instead of tossing it all in the oven at once (that’s how that works, right? I’m not much of a cook. And by that I mean I made eggs over easy the other day and had to ask my thirteen-year-old brother, who doesn’t even eat eggs, if I did it right).
Lamott gave me one of the most valuable pieces of writing advice I’ve ever read or heard. Every time I sit at the computer to write, I don’t think about overarching themes, or the chapter after next, or the climax (unless I’m writing the climax). I think about the chapter I’m writing now. Then I think about the scene, and then the page. Then the paragraph. Then the sentence. Then the next word. Because that’s the only way I can write a multi-hundred-page book: by taking it bird by bird, word by word.
But Lamott did not just give me writing advice. She gave me advice for my life.
Sometimes, when writing, I lose sight of the bird by bird principle. I start freaking out about the book being too long (a common problem of mine). I don’t focus on what I’m writing because I’m too excited about what happens in the next chapter. I decide everything sucks and pout and drink chocolate milk. This is why I keep the words “bird by bird” near my desk at home. When I remember those words, I can usually get back on track. But as much as it happens to me while writing, it happens to me in life so, so much more frequently.
What if I’m no longer happy with my body by the time I get married and I hate how I look in my dress? What if I don’t get into the grad school I want? What if someone with the same name I want to give to my future daughter makes it big within the next ten years and I can’t name her that without scrutiny? What if I can’t even have kids?
Oh my god, Morgan, shut up. Yes, I have actually had these concerns, even though I am not even twenty years old and still a sophomore in college. These are the stupidest worries ever. Yet they worry me, because I see the gigantic forest of life. I see a tree in the distance that might be hard to climb and I agonize over it and I pull my hair out and this usually results into me walking into a tree I didn’t notice right in front of me.
So when this happens, I must tell myself, “bird by bird.” I must focus on what is happening in my life right now and do that as well as I can. Morgan, you have French homework this weekend, chapter eighteen of book one to edit (again), and a MacBook charger to replace (to my mom who is probably reading this–yes, the other charger broke, too). “But,” says my forest-obsessing self, “I still don’t know enough French to hold a conversation if/when I go to France! What happens then? What if editing chapter eighteen again doesn’t matter because this book will never be published? What am I gonna do when the new charger inevitably breaks?”
Then you deal with that if/when that happens, other me. You don’t obsess over it now. If you don’t, you will not put your best into the current stage of your life. You will run into a tree.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend reading Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and some of her other nonfiction as well. She is witty, insightful, honest, and as you can see from this blog post, wise. It will help you whether you’re a writer or just someone who has difficulty seeing the trees. If you’ve read it already, please tell me your impression of it.
What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten? What advice will you never forget, and what advice do you live by? Where did you find that advice? I’d love to hear about it. I love unforgettable quotes, and could always use more.
See you on the other side of the forest.
*Avatar by Charlavail