Life Advice



Ask Amy: Writers are encouraged to proceed ‘Bird by Bird’

Amy Dickinson, Tribune Content Agency on

Dear Happy: Nothing squeegees a writer quite like the pressure of success, especially when that success is followed by a lull (and they all are).

The pressure to both create and also succeed critically and commercially can be exhausting. This is why some successful writers give it all up and become garlic ranchers.

I shared your query with my friend the writer Anne Lamott, author of many books, including an important book on writing, which has guided many stuck writers home: “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” (25th Anniversary edition, 2019, Anchor Books).

Anne responds: “B is lucky to have so many great ideas but that does not mean they’d make good books. I’d create a file of plot ideas and see if they excited me a month later. If one plot won’t leave me alone, and the characters are compelling enough to spend a year with, I may be on to something!

An agent will not look at it until there is a solid second draft, so you — the ‘Happy’ partner — can practice releasing B to the work itself.

The ‘help’ is not helpful — the hyper-excitement and support turn the project into frappe speed, instead of the daily elbow grease all writers need to get a few pages written every day.


The frenzy and the despair are in LIEU of writing. Dial your ‘help’ way back: Express quiet support for new ideas, but no more than that. Maybe B follows through, maybe not.”

Here is the distilled advice Anne Lamott gives to herself (I have it on a post-it at my desk): “I tell myself to write ‘bird by bird’; a really sh***y first draft; to keep my butt in the chair; then go through and take out the lies, adverbs and boring parts.”

Dear Amy: I just learned that a family member is writing a memoir. Yesterday, she told me: “You’re in it a few times.”

Now that a day has passed, I find myself wondering what she has written about me.


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