Madeleines From Reading Bird By Bird By Anne Lamott

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Exploring Julie’s Office

I found a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird during one of my intermittent attempts to reorganize Julie’s Office, the room in our home where Julie1 wrote, paid bills, did our jpffbookkeeping, emailed her friends, read, and gazed out the windows into the woods behind the house. And, although it was little more than a storage closet (albeit a room-sized storage closet with its own closet and great views of the woods and the fountain) for almost five years after Julie died, it’s become my preferred site for writing posts such as this one, reading, watching TV and videos, and listening to music.

It required those five years2 to defuse all the emotional time bombs stashed in the area – Julie’s correspondence, our financial records, her book and story drafts, our kids’ school materials, keepsakes, documents, photos, and a subset of her books, especially those dealing with writing and those that had a personal significance for her.

Given its subtitle, “Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” I initially assumed that Bird By Bird fell into the didactic category. Now, I’m not so sure.

At this point, I should note that Bird By Bird is not a book I would have chosen on my own. Lamott’s writing has always struck me as too self-consciously spiritual, too self-consciously Christian, too self-consciously moralistic, and, well, too self-consciously self-conscious. This is, I admit, an undeniably unfair criticism of essays and books that are, after all, often listed as memoirs and are, by design, introspective pieces. Still, my immediate reaction to her expositions on “faith,” “redemption,” and “holiness” is, to borrow the strategy most frequently utilized by King Arthur in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, “Run Away! Run Away!”

I also have an instant aversion to anyone described as “one of our most beloved writers.”

Nonetheless, as I had done many times after finding one of Julie’s books that I had not read, I opened it with the intent of skimming through enough to determine whether it should go into a basement-bound box or my “read sometime when I don’t have anything else to read” stack. I finished it within 24 hours and now harbor a begrudging admiration for Lamott.3

I also found Julie’s penciled ticks at these passages:

Passages From Bird By Bird

Having a likable 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 . . . When you have a friend like this, she can say ‘Hey, I’ve got to drive up to the dump in Petaluma — wanna come along?’ and you honestly can’t think of anything in the world you’d rather do. By the same token, a boring or annoying person can offer to buy you an expensive dinner, followed by tickets to a great show, and in all honesty you’d rather stay home and watch the aspic set.

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Now, a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable. I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I. Preoccupation with self is good, as is a tendency toward procrastination, …for instance, I have a friend who said one day, “I could resent the ocean if I tried,” and I realized that I love that in a guy.

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In general, … there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.

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Annie Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more. This is a radical proposition that runs so contrary to human nature, or at least to my nature, that I personally keep trying to find loopholes in it. But it is only when I go ahead and decide to shoot my literary, creative wad on a daily basis that I get any sense of full presence, of being Zorba the Greek at the keyboard. Otherwise I am a wired little rodent squirreling things away, hoarding and worrying about supply. Arthritis forms in my hands and in the hands my mind is using to shape things, in the hands of that creature in the cellar who wants and needs to use all of his favorite rags in the ragbag he works from.

You are going to have to give and give and give, or there is no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.

We are wired as human beings to be open to the world instead of enclosed in a fortified, defensive mentality. What your giving can do is to help your readers to be braver, be better than they are, be open to the world again.

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Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

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Note: Originally posted Nov 5, 2006 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com

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  1. Julie Showalter 

    Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author.  Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ.

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  2. Despite my deliberate efforts over the years since Julie died to refer to this room as “The Downstairs Office,” I still find myself calling it “Julie’s Office.” []
  3. More precisely, I admire the Lamott who authored Bird By Bird; I’m still not so hot on the Lamott who wrote some of those other things with her name on them. []

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