Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott tells this story about her brother…

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

I wish someone had given my that advice one dreadful day when I was 12. My huge, immobilizing task was an art project, with pictures and text on many different types of art. Oil painting, sculpture, pencil sketching, charcoal, water colour — you get the idea. Pictures were to be cut from magazines or any other source I could get my hands on. Trouble was, I had no idea where to look for magazines, and no idea how to go about doing the assignment. Nor did my mom, who was exasperated with me for not at least asking the teacher for some ideas.

Bird by bird. Word by word. It’s great advice, especially to people like me who are perfectionists and have no trouble finding excuses for not doing a project — until it has grown exponentially and we think we can never do it.


Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…

Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness…

Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground — you can still discover new treasures under all those piles…


Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott has plenty of other gems of wisdom in her book, Bird by Bird. Like Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne’s Bird by Bird is as much a memoir as it is a writing manual. She has faced and won all the same battles any of us have as writers.

I particularly like her suggestion to write “short assignments”. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you walk a thousand miles? One step at a time. How do you write a novel? Short assignments. Not even a chapter at a time, if that’s too daunting. A scene, a conversation, a few paragraphs at a time.

Even when writer’s block gets in the way, short assignments are DO-able.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lammott. A book well worth reading!

© Willena Flewelling


  1. Thank you for the wise words you have shared . I live with a perfectionist (my husband) and it’s so frustrating , sometimes we have to do one project many times because it did not come right and at times we take long to begin the project as we have to do it the right way.
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  2. Now that’s some really good advice Willena!

    And when you actually stop to think about it, that’s really
    all we can do is create each piece of content one at a time, no matter which
    particular form it may take.

    So “Bird by Bird” is great advice and makes perfect sense!

    Thanks so much for sharing it!
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