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Taking it Bird by Bird
May 24, 2012

I wonder if Anne Lamott fully comprehends the enormity of the influence she's had on others.

Recently, an overwhelmed friend Tweeted that she was dealing with the bare minimum of what needed to get done before she collapsed. I Tweeted back, "That is the smart way to tackle it. Bird by bird." Today, I saw a writer Tweet to another writer, "Bird by bird, right?" when talking about looming deadlines.

Bird by Bird is the title of Anne Lamott's hugely influential book, the subtitle of which -- Some Instructions on Writing and Life -- accurately reveals it to be a handbook of sorts. Though I'd venture to say that the most ardent apostles of Anne are aspiring or even established writers for whom the subtitle has long been internalized and typed on their heart as "Some Instructions on Writing Life," where "Writing" is not a verb but modifies "Life." That's the way it is for me.

The vignette from which "bird by bird" springs isn't even one about writing. It's not even about Anne Lamott herself. It's a memory Lamott relates about her brother who, at ten-years-old, is dealing with a school project where he has to catalog a prodigious number of birds. He's left it until the last minute and is in a panic about it when their father -- himself a writer -- counsels that he not think about the sheer enormity of what he has to do and instead take it "bird by bird." Lamott calls it "the best advice about writing, or life, [she has] ever heard."

Though it obviously bears the same meaning, somehow "bird by bird" become far more powerful and has a greater emotional resonance than the old standby, "one day at a time." But why? Maybe because it's more interesting than the old expression. Maybe it's because "bird by bird" was electrified into our lives by Lamott, a touchstone for so many writers, and as a result, the expression has become somewhat self-perpetuating in this large but small community. That story of a left-to-the-last-minute project is also a concept we can grab onto with both our minds and our emotions. "One day at a time" stretches out a philosophical vapor that is impossible to close fingers around. It's very infiniteness eludes core understanding.

"Bird by bird" is something writers say to other writers. Even when not applied directly to the writing task, it's a semaphore of support that writers instinctively lock into and understand. It has the "you so get me" element clinging to it. Where the tired out "one day at a time" makes us roll our eyes and get earwormed by a television theme song, "bird by bird" makes us stop.

And take a deep breath.

And because of that, it comforts us.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Stephanie Vander Weide Lucianovic