The phrase “bird by bird” has been running through my mind a lot lately.
If you recall—or if you don’t, or if you’re unaware—the phrase came to be 50-something years ago while a boy was overwhelmed with the task of writing a report about birds. The boy was author Anne Lamott’s younger brother.
“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 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.” Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
It’s funny how the brain recalls things. I haven’t read Bird by Bird in years. Yet, that short scene of father and son is so powerful, and its’ resonance has rippled throughout the writer community, that it’s no surprise that it came back to me—especially now.
I’m at that place, at the kitchen table, “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.” But instead of “unopened books on birds” before me, I’ve got a file of my sh*tty first draft open. On my computer, I also have a growing list of edits to review when I proof the draft later, and a running list of things to research for historical accuracy. And there’s that deadline I gave myself, because I don’t want to meander around the pasture too long.
“Bird by bird.”
I have been saying it out loud to myself on those days where I feel sluggish, those days that I feel overwhelmed, the days that I feel less-than, the days where I go from, “Yes, my end goal is to find an agent and become a published author” to “perhaps I should just self-publish something just for my friends and family to read,” those days of self-doubt, of nitpicking, of not feeling good enough.
There’s something cathartic about the term “bird by bird,” when you give it all the power of its’ intention. It can become cathartic, hopeful, empowering, and even whimsical. And there’s more force behind it when the phrase is said aloud. You start to claim it and own it.
The last time I said “bird by bird,” I added on “word by word” to it. Yes, I’ll admit that I probably said it haphazardly at first, because of the rhythm. But when I thought about it a little more, I realized that there was depth to it. That little add-on reminds me how far I’ve come. To get to the place I’m at, to get to this sh*tty first draft, I had to write word by word.
If I keep doing what I’m doing, bird by bird, then I’ll get to the second draft, and so on and so forth…
I decided to revisit the book that made the phrase so famous. I pulled the copy from my bookshelf. The copyright date is 1994. I seem to remember buying it within a few years of publication. I had underlined some sentences, dog-eared some pages. This was around the time that I started to take this whole writing thing more seriously. I wanted to study the craft of it, understand it better, understand why I felt the way that I did about the process–immobilized, afraid, enthused, excited. The book helped with all of that, and then some.
Twenty years later, it’s still helping.