Book Report: Bird by Bird (on writing)

Ellen Gottesdiener (at least, I think it was Ellen – whoever it was, thank you!) recommended Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life to me. Though it is more about creative writing, and though I found the author to be a bit of a kook at times, I’m taking away a lot of advice from it.

Lamott highly recommends participating in a writing group. This was good affirmation about our writing-about-testing group. But she cautions about criticizing others’ work: “you don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth, you can point with it too.” Having been chopped down before, I appreciate this advice. We need criticism, but we also need civility.

She also talks about the joy of having a writing partner, and I can attest to the value of that! Janet Gregory is the best writing partner anyone could want, whether we are writing something together or helping each other with individual projects.

Here are some more tips from the book that stick in my head:

“Short assignments” – if you have an anxiety attack trying to start a project, write down as much as you can see through a one-inch picture frame. Tell a one-inch piece of your story. I think this applies well to our kind of writing too.

“Shitty first drafts” – All good writers write them. That’s how they end up with good second drafts and awesome third drafts. I put this to use already on my Agile 2010 proposals and so far I’ve got some shitty first drafts, yay!

Get over your perfectionism. (I think this is particularly difficult for us Type A testers).

Quiet your negative inner voices, and get out of the way of your subconscious. At first I thought this was not applicable to technical writing, but all writing comes from within us, doesn’t it? We figure problems out while we’re thinking about something else or zoned out in the shower. Who knows what might be locked up in my subconscious, if I could just quiet my brain down enough to hear it?

There’s a lot in the book about characters and dialog that I didn’t find all that relevant to my writing, but it was still interesting.

Lamott writes about keeping at least one index card and a pen with her at all times to jot down notes, ideas, observations. She wrote the book in 1994, so maybe now she uses an iPhone, I dunno. But, I know at times I’m out walking the dog or something and have an idea – like this morning I had an idea about my proposal while I as out walking – it would have been good to have a way to note it down so I didn’t forget.

Another interesting chapter was on jealousy – being jealous of other writers (especially of your friends) when they have a huge success and you don’t. I don’t think I feel jealous about others’ success, at least not in the field of writing (I am envious of my former neighbors who retired to Hawaii, but at least I get to visit them), but maybe I just don’t admit it to myself because I know it seems bad? I do get envious when other people get fabulous jobs in fabulous locations, but why? I have a fabulous job in a fabulous location!

I think my wonderful writing-about-testing community as well as the other agile and testing communities in which I participate will help me avoid wasting time on envy and take advantage of every resource that can  help me write well. I write because I have something to say that I think could help someone else. I’m grateful for the opportunity to pay forward all the help I’ve received over the years as I’ve learned better ways to develop and test software.

4 comments on “Book Report: Bird by Bird (on writing)

  1. Since I got my fancy new MacBook Pro with the glass touch pad I don’t use a mouse. Now, where the mouse and mouse pad used to be, I have a little notebook and pen (thanks for the schwag Google) where I jot down thoughts and issues.

    I never look backward in the notebook, just whatever on the top page is what I need to be reminded of right now.

  2. Quiet your negative inner voices, and get out of the way of your subconscious. At first I thought this was not applicable to technical writing, but all writing comes from within us, doesn’t it? We figure problems out while we’re thinking about something else or zoned out in the shower. Who knows what might be locked up in my subconscious, if I could just quiet my brain down enough to hear it?

    I have found the negative inner voices hampering my writing at most times. I am struggling to write a post of 600 words for 2 weeks now for reasons that escape my mind. This reminds me of the Lizard’s Brain which Seth Godin talks about in one of his posts. Here is the link: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/01/quieting-the-lizard-brain.html.

    I am done reading first chapter in the book ‘Weinberg on Writing’ from Jerry Weinberg. He says ‘Never attempt to write anything that you don’t care about’. This rules seems to work for me.

    Happy Writing,
    Parimala Shankaraiah

  3. Thanks for this great post. It sounds like her book is worth reading.

    I’ve been reading “Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work,” by Rob Austin and Lee Devin. They have one chapter where they write about the necessity of “release” for creative work to happen. I used to take Yoga with a lady who would lead us through meditation and say, “If you are trying to meditate and thought pops up in your mind, give it some brief notice, then put it away and focus on your breath.” They are about the same I think.

    I’ve noticed that I tend to have the most release when I take a shower so that’s subsequently when I have most of my ideas. Following Austin & Devin’s advice, I have placed some paper and a pen on the sink next to my shower so when I get out I can write my ideas down. This seems similar to the note card suggestion. I’ve heard somewhere that Steven Spielberg actually keeps paper in his car because he has his best ideas when he’s driving (hope he waits for a redlight before jotting them down.)

  4. Lovely post!

    The book sounds like it’s worth reading. Thanks for the extracts.

    For notes I usually carry around a small notebook. In the last year I have usually gotten my ideas whilst out walking – especially if I’m pushing a pram and the youngest has fallen asleep – that sudden transition into tranquility is quite a trigger!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *