The best writing advice from Anne Lamott

August 5, 2020

Books pages and pens on a bed

The best writing advice from Anne Lamott

Many years ago I read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and it remains my favourite book on writing. Despite turning 30 years old this year, it still offers up some of the best writing advice of all time. And I will die on that hill.

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Originally published in 1994, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life has become one of the quintessential texts for aspiring authors. I have known I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but this book never found its way into any of my stacks before 2020.

At the time, I was stuck in limbo due to the covid-19 pandemic, and this book saved me from complete and mental collapse. In 2019, I moved to Toronto to complete a post-grad program in book publishing.

But thanks to the virus, I wasn’t able to graduate from my program, my placement was cancelled indefinitely and I lost both my serving and yoga teaching jobs. Needless to say, I was panicking. But this book brought me back to myself.

How can someone I’ve never heard of give the best writing advice?

It’s possible you’ve never heard of Anne Lamott. I hadn’t until this book came across my desk. I would say she is best know for writing about writing, but her more popular books are also non-fiction titles.

And the funny thing to me is that writing advice doesn’t necessarily have to come from the Stephen Kings of the world. A prolific writer has a handle on how to produce, and Stephen King’s On Writing is another classic of the genre.

But what I love about Lamott’s guide is that is focuses so much on what the process of writing gives back to the writer. I have read dozens of other books on the subject, but they really didn’t resonate like this one.

Nothing else I’ve ever read on the subject so eloquently captures the process; the crippling self doubt and insecurities, matched with the sheer elation of getting a sentence just right. At the same time, Lamott offers actionable steps that will help writers write.

I literally can’t stop reading this book. As soon as I finished it I flipped right back to the beginning and started again. also felt a wide range of emotions while reading. Lamott wanted exactly that, because it mirrors the process of living and writing.

Write your best and worst experiences

I am over a DECADE into into writing my first full-length novel. And I remember telling one of my creative writing teachers about the material I was planning on using. “It sounds like you have about ten years of writing ahead of you. You better get going.” And she was right.

It took that long because I had to process my own experiences, piece by piece, so I could transform bits of them into fiction. It’s painful, it’s ugly, but it’s also so, so freeing.

The best writing advice

And thats the biggest takeaway I got from Lamott’s work. “Publication is not what it’s cracked up to be,” she reminds us. “But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do, the actual writing, turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed a tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

And she goes on like this for another couple hundred pages; gorgeous prose punctuated by important lessons. The subtitle of the book certainly doesn’t lie. While she does veer offtrack at times, she always has a plan. She brings her rambling thoughts and experiences back around to make her point.

More advice from the book

There are over 461 quotes from this book on Goodreads, so it was hard to pick only a few to highlight. But these are some of the ones that jumped out at me.

“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

And possibly the single best writing advice…

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

The writing

She continually offers up some of the best writing advice I’ve read. And what more could you ask for from a book about the cyclical process of both writing and life? What about you? What is some of the best writing advice you’ve ever read or received?

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott offers the best writing advice. Image of book on top of grey typewriter.