I wonder if Anne Lamott fully comprehends the enormity of her influence on me and others like me.
Recently, an overwhelmed friend emailed that she was dealing with the bare minimum of what needed to get done before she collapsed. I responded, “That’s the smart way to handle it. Bird by bird.” Today, I saw a writer Tweet to another writer, “Bird by bird, right?” when talking about an impending deadline.
Bird by Bird is the title of Lamott’s hugely influential book. Though most ardent apostles of Anne are aspiring writes, like myself, I would venture that even established writers have internalized this instruction.
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.” Maybe because it’s more interesting than the old expression? Maybe it’s because Lamott has electrified “bird by bird” into the life of many writers, including mine, and as a result has become self-perpetuating in the larger writing community. That story of a left-to-the-last-minute project is a concept most can grasp with both the mind and the emotion.
“Bird by bird” is something writers say to other writers. But even when not applied directly to the writing task, it’s a semaphore of support that one instinctively locks on to and understands. It has the “you so get me” element clinging to it.
Causing one to stop.
And take a deep breath.
So, I am taking everything bird by bird today. And also tomorrow. And so on . . .