In times like this when I wake up feeling paralyzed, not knowing which overlapping deadline assignment I should tackle first, I think of three golden words – “bird by bird.” They form the title of Anne Lamott’s 1994 book called Bird By Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. The phrase comes from a vignette that Lamott shares early in the book. It goes like this, paraphrased:
Many years ago, when Lamott’s older brother was 10, he was panicking the night before a report on birds was due in school. He had had three months to work on it, but there he was, Procrastinator Extraordinaire, the night before deadline, on the verge of tears, ‘surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.’ Their father sat down beside him, wrapped his arms around his son, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
But which bird, I ask myself? When I’m feeling really immobilized as deadlines loom and the computer screen before me is blank, I try to choose the bird that will most likely fly the farthest fastest. That is, the one I enjoy working on and will thus most likely put behind me soonest. Right now it’s this blog post. Tomorrow it’s returning to a rewrite of an article. For all the talk about women being multi-taskers, I’m not much of one. When I try to juggle too much at once I tend to freeze up and form mental knots.
I have used this dog-eared book for many years when I have taught feature writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Students often tell me that “bird by bird” is the most useful message of the book. The next most instructive three-word phrase in Lamott’s book they remember is “shitty first drafts.” Lamott writes:
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.
Despite the many years I have cajoled students to appreciate the “shitty first draft” and then a strong rewrite or even two after an edit, I still cringe when I receive hemorrhaging edits from editors on my first draft. Lamott, in her self-deprecating, 12-step humor, also helps me appreciate how fragile a writer’s ego is, even after many years in the field. And how vital it is to take a deep breath, and then get on with the rewrite. Bird by bird.