Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
"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.'" From the Trade Paperback edition.
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According to Lamott, what distinguishes writing from other careers?
Lamott is using anecdotes (short, personal stories) to convey important ideas to the reader. One of them, highlighted here, is that being a writer allows one to be a free spirit with a sense of purpose. What other points does she make about writing using anecdotes?
Which central idea does Lamott make about writers through the story about her father's deprecating essay?
It's important to notice the tone of the author as you read this book. Lamott's self-depracating tone makes her critically humorous of herself. Why do you think she uses humor as she writes about her early struggles as a writer?
Why does the author share her reflection on the publication industry?
Lamott makes a connection between milking a cow and writing. Is this strange? Think about about why she would use this analogy to explain the purpose of why she writes.
In which of the following ways does Lamott claim this book will differ from other books about how to write?
As you read this manual on how to become a better writer, we will focus on how the author uses rhetoric. The following video provides an introduction to this concept and why it is important in written work. We will look more closely at rhetorical techniques as we read more in this guide on writing. (This annotation contains a video)
How does Lamott refine the idea that a writer must start with personal details from one's own life?
Does this hypothetical string of "if-thens" sound familiar? It reminds me of the Direct TV commercials in which a protagonist makes one wrong move, and he finds himself free falling through a series of disastrous consequences. Exaggerating a serious situation and exposing its ridiculousness is an example of travesty. In this case, as you think about how absurd your fears are, you actually begin to sober up.
Based Lamott's interpretation and use of Phillip Lopate's poem, what must a writer do in order to begin writing?
"Fantasy keys" is a phrase that is an example of another rhetorical device. At first glance, you might think it is a metaphor, and, it is--but it's more. It's an example of hypocatastasis, an extreme metaphor that outright calls an idea something else. What do "fantasy keys" represent in the context of this passage?
This highlighted phrase is an example of another rhetorical device called an idiom, or figure of speech. Here, it means the writer has run out of ideas.
How does the idea that writing should be done in short pieces emerge MOST effectively in this highlighted passage?
This anecdote is part of Lamott's rhetorical approach in this novel. She is explaining her entire premise for this book--don't overwhelm oneself with grandiloquent writing tasks: "Just take it bird by bird." What idioms do you know that are similar to the one used by Lamott's father?
How does this section develop Lamott's claim anyone can write?
In this highlighted sentence, Lamott calls attention to part of her writing style and rhetorical techniques--the colloquialisms that she uses. A colloquialism is the intentional use of language that is particular to a region or sub-culture. Why do you think using colloquialisms are helpful in her writing?
What connection does Lamott make between perfectionism and rough drafts?
This section on school lunches connects with an important concept mentioned earlier: the one-inch picture frame. This rhetorical technique is referred to as logos because she is using a metaphor (connecting the concrete to the abstract) in order to prove a point. The following video will help you understand logos (and other rhetorical techniques that we will discuss in this curriculet) so you can see how Lamott uses it to strengthen her claims about writing. (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following is the sequence in which Lamott suggests one begin a writing task?
Lamott's advice about characters has several layers. How does her advice about developing complex characters and letting characters grow organically relate to her concept of a polaroid picture?
Which sentence in the highlighted passages BEST develops one of Lamott's emerging concepts about the creation of a writing community?
There is an example of the rhetorical technique called pathos in this highlighted passage. Lamott is appealing to your emotions. What does she say to make you feel good about the writing process?
Does Lamott's advice in this highlighted passage seem strange? Would you feel comfortable doing this? Think about what she's asking you to do in the context of another form of art, like painting or photography. Your emotional and physical proximity to your subject will only help you know it better.
Why is dialogue so important to Lamott?
We haven't discussed tone very much in this book, but Lamott's tone is multi-dimensional. The tone she uses, mostly, depends on what she's talking about. There are, however, several consistent tones running throughout the book. What tone is used here in this highlighted passage? What other tones have you noticed?
In order to write authoritatively about settings, a writer must _________ before he can write about it.
Which word BEST describes the tone that Lamott uses in this passage to describe her struggle to see characters for who they really are?
The image here is a beautifully descriptive one. Writing about characters is about letting those characters become who they are organically--without artificial force and manipulation. A tendril--the part of the plant that climbs to provide support for the plant--is a symbol of unpredictably and strength. One is shown below. (This annotation contains an image)
What moral lesson does Lamott's anecdote about her revisions on her novel BEST convey?
Ernest Hemingway, one of America's most famous authors of the 20th century, is best known for his novella, The Old Man and the Sea. The idea for this story had been in his head for 16 years, and it wasn't until people thought he was washed up, that he plugged away for two years to create his Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Like Lamott his perseverance is what stands out about his writing. What lesson does Lamott teach you based on her experiences as described in this chapter?
Part I Quiz
William Wordsworth, a Romantic poet from England, created poetry that expressed a sublime interest and observation of nature. He intertwined his beliefs about God into his poetry as an exploration of the world around him. He is shown below. (This annotation contains an image)
The frame of mind that a writer must have is to _____________ the world around them.
Lamott uses a more philosophical approach in this chapter, and outlines several ways authors should create a moral message. She claims that writers must care deeply about the moral message they want to send. Which of her suggested techniques about moral messages resonates most with you?
How does Lamott suggest a writer BEST allow her intuition to flourish?
Lamott, again, uses an anecdote to give plausibility (and build ethos, or trust in her character) for her approach to silencing the voice of grandeur and cynicism. What does she suggest is the only way to deal with this "radio station"?
Which rhetorical technique does Lamott use in this highlighted passage to emphasize the illogical thought process that jealousy creates?
This is an example of a malapropism. Lamott purposely mispronounces the word in order to make fun of her friend. Her friend may or may not have picked up on this. Have you ever mocked someone by mispronouncing a word he or she said? Did this approach help you accomplish your goal?
How does this chapter on jealousy refine one of Lamott's most essential claims that writers need to persevere in order to have success?
The highlighted word, "priggishly," BEST conveys a tone of _______ within the context of this passage.
Lamott's pragmatic approach to writing uses anecdotes like the one mentioned here about her aunt's lemonade. Her tone is both nostalgic and sentimental. In what ways does this approach appeal to pathos and encourage you to try her strategy of index cards?
In which way does this chapter (Calling Around) connect to the previous chapter (Index Cards)?
Lamott builds our confidence in her ability and authority to help manage budding young writers by using this particular anecdote about the tenderfoot writer and his truthfully critical peer. How well do you think Lamott establishes ethos in this chapter?
Which argument does Lamott use in this chapter that BEST supports the necessity of writers' groups?
Most English teachers wish that their students would spend more time doing peer revision. They also wish they had time to give you constructive feedback like Lamott's friends give her. Can you begin to sense how important "community" is in the feedback and refinement process of writing?
Which two qualifications does Lamott suggest a reader should have?
Does Lamott's pragmatic tone inspire you to try these techniques and strategies? Although she doesn't offer up scientific evidence, or the most theoretical sounding advice, she offers her stories of success. How does this approach affect you and do you think it offers sufficient reasons for getting you to believe her approach works?
Lamott has used this phrase several times. She obviously thinks an important theme to convey. The Tim McGraw song below captures the essence of Lamott's wisdom. (This annotation contains a video)
Part II Quiz
Rhetorical technique sighting! This is a euphemism--a more pleasant way of saying her dad is going to die. A more common use for this technique is to employ a similar sound word in place of profanity, such as "What the heck?" instead of its more profane counterpart, hell.
The first section of Writing a Present focuses MOSTLY on
Lamott has used a rhetorical device called "active voicing" throughout this book. Active voicing is when you use a credible source's words to bolster your own case and make it more believable. In the highlighted text, Lamott uses a quotation from the respected writer Toni Morrison. How effectively do you think Lamott uses active voicing in her work?
In one of Ernest Hemingway's most influential novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls, the protagonist, Robert Jordan, a die-hard communist, republican, guerrilla soldier, who is fighting for freedom from a fascist regime in Spain (which is not even his own country, by the way), realizes that he is not that different from those who he fights against who believe the exact opposite he does. Hemingway brings this theme home poignantly because Robert Jordan only realizes this after he has killed an enemy soldier, and he starts going through his letters and personal belongings. How is Lamott's point of view similar to Hemingway's?
What must a writer tap into in order to establish his or her own voice?
The use of sentimentality in anecdotes is MOST related to which of the following rhetorical devices?
Lamott's sentimentality is one of her most powerful rhetorical techniques in this book. In what ways does she play on your heart strings in this chapter to prove her point? Answer the question that follows after you think about the question above.
The highlighted text is an example of one of Lamott's most frequently used rhetorical techniques. Why does Lamott MOST likely use a self-deprecating style of writing in this section about publication?
In discussing the pitfalls common to the writing community, and ways in which these pitfalls can be avoided, Lamott is using which rhetorical technique?
Do you remember the term for a metaphor that outright calls one thing something else? Hypocatastasis. What does "the cosmic banana peel" (a funny example of this device, obviously) mean?
What is Lamott's overall point of view about publication?
Throughout Lamott's book she urges writers to take a compassionate stance towards writing. This section on libel further develops this concept. Why do you think she makes such a big deal about disguising people you know?
What claim does the poem in this chapter help develop?
Part III Quiz