You know those moments when you’re talking to an extremely close friend about an important life matter, and as they give you their advice and perspective, you suddenly becoming irrationally angry? Like, every annoyance and irritation and frustration with this person suddenly boils up inside you, and you feel your cheeks flush, and you simultaneously want to reach across the table and choke the breath out of them so that they just stop talking, and you also want to fling yourself into the middle of the nearest highway because how could you ever have let yourself be friends with a person who is so clearly wrong about everything in your life and who you are and what you stand for?
And then you know those moments immediately after when you realize all that tumultuous energy you felt was because this person was acutely, painfully, perfectly right about each and every thing they just said to you, and you know your reaction was simply because you didn’t want to hear the truth right then and there?
That’s what it felt like to read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
This book, whose subtitle is “Some Instructions on Writing and Life” was a birthday gift from one of my best friends who has often inspired my “I’m so angry at you for being so right about this” reaction, so it’s fitting that she be the one to buy me the book.
As someone who just embarked on my own professional, full-time writing career within the past calendar year, I’m at the delicate phase where I want to be coddled and held and told everything will be all right. Anne Lamott has no interest in coddling me or holding me or telling me everything will be all right. And as I started reading the book, I hated her for that. I rolled my eyes and slouched my shoulders and beleaguered through each chapter, cursing my friend for buying me this book and forcing upon me the obligation to read it, because clearly this woman was just bitter and angry and didn’t know what she was talking about.
But the longer I stayed in the book, the more I saw the truth shining through each page like a beacon. As Lamott quotes in the final chapter – “Lighthouses don’t run all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” The book offers some practical advice, yes, but the shining light guiding my little boat safely through the waters was found between the lines, in the stories and examples and faces and expectations of Lamott’s creative writing students. There were hard truths shining through – the loneliness and the hard work and the painful Cool Runnings reminder that if you aren’t enough before you get the gold medal, you won’t be enough after it. But there were powerful, comforting, hopeful truths too – that writing and reading brings us together, that it helps us survive, that it makes us keep going.
If you’re a writer, I recommend Bird by Bird.
If you’re a reader, I recommend Bird by Bird.
If you think you have life all figured out and don’t need the stern, loving, but sometimes-not-what-you-want-to-hear guidance of a good friend with knowledge on the subject, well, then, I probably recommend therapy. Or at least a good, long look in the mirror.