Life Advice



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

Amy Dickinson, Tribune Content Agency on

Dear Amy: My darling partner, “B,” has been a successful author, and has received a lot of satisfaction (and public acclaim) from it.

During a lull, B took a job to make ends meet, and has been doing the 9-to-5 slog ever since.

Every few months, B will get an idea for a new book. B has an agent and the connections to get it published.

B will get SUPER excited about the idea, talking about it for days.

I start thinking about how I can help, offering perspectives and praise: And then it fizzles and we're both sad.

B grinds away at a job to pay the bills, pursues hobbies and friendships — and takes the most wonderful care of our household.

I wish I could figure out a way to help move all that enthusiasm toward action, instead of watching my partner stall out at the idea phase.

I know that B would be deeply proud to complete a new project. I hate to see them feel so bad over the inability to make progress.

How can I help? And failing that, how do I avoid getting sucked into “B’s” enthusiasm and disappointment?

– Happy to Help

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.

Don’t I have rights, here?

– Worried

Dear Worried: I’ve written two memoirs. In both cases, I shared excerpts with family members where they were named, inviting them to weigh in. I did this because the relationships were more important to me than the excavation of family history.

There were also cases where I named people but did not invite them to weigh in, because I didn’t care about the impact of my writing on the relationship.

You have the right to ask your family member to see sections involving you. If she refuses, or if you don’t like what you read later – you have the right to tell her so and to keep your distance. If the material is defamatory, you have the right to see her in court.

Dear Amy: I’m supporting your answer to “Moving On.”

My husband reluctantly visited his absentee dad on his father’s deathbed.

He got some information and history that helped him to understand everything that had happened around the time he was conceived.

He’s still not a fan, but he got some inner peace.

– Moved On

Dear Moved On: Your husband’s experience underscores something I learned long ago: When it comes to complex and painful family histories, total resolution is rarely in the cards, but getting partway there is a goal worth reaching for.


(You can email Amy Dickinson at or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068. You can also follow her on Twitter @askingamy or Facebook.)

©2022 Amy Dickinson. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.




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