Bird by Bird, isn't a how-to book for writers. Rather, it is a book about the joys of writing as well as being an inspirational guide on the life of writing.
The book opens with an anecdote that retells a childhood story of Ms. Lamont's brother who has to write an assignment for school.
The assignment requires him to write about birds but when finally the day before the assignment has to be submitted, he cries in frustration that the task is impossible because there are just too many birds to write about.
The father comes over, takes a look at the assignment, then gives one small but important piece of advice: "Take it Bird by Bird, son. Bird by Bird." (I haven't read the book for years, so forgive me if this isn't exactly verbatim.)
It goes without saying that this is excellent advice.
Recently, I met with fellow writer, Elizabeth Tai, and we chitchatted about books, reading and writing.
After a while the Bird by Bird book came up in the conversation and I talked about how if ever I got stuck with my writing, I'd take a deep breath and chant "bird by bird, bird by bird" repeatedly like a mantra, and that would help me to get unstuck.
But when I said that I did that with my writing, I meant I did it with my writing at work and not really with my personal fiction writing. For some reason, I've always compartmentalised my writing and have separated writing for work and writing for myself. With my own writing, I am like Lamont's brother, who frequently cries in frustration that "this is impossible!"
Elizabeth has the same approach with her writing but has the smarts to actually apply the Bird by Bird technique it to any of her writing, whether it is with her work-related stuff (she's a journalist with Malaysia's daily newspaper, The Star) or with her fiction. To her, all writing is the same and the same technique can be applied no matter what you're writing.
Some things are so obvious, you need somebody else to tell it to you. For me, this is one of those things. Well, duh. Of course I can apply the Bird by Bird technique to my fiction writing. Why the heck didn't I think of it before? In my mind, many head slappings occured.
Elizabeth went on to elaborate on her writing process. She said that while writing, she takes a robotic kind of view and has a detachment towards her writing. She admitted it was a dry process but at least it gets the job done.
She has a point. As writers of fiction, we all want our fiction to be perfect, we all want to carve out that perfect novel. We labour and lament over the choice of words, idioms, metaphors, similes and other dumb bits of writerly jargon. And when we do that, the writing process grinds to a halt and it has a psychological effect on our minds and makes us think, as writers, we kind of suck. No, not just "kind of". We suck. Truly and completely. And that makes us stop writing.
But stop a moment and reconsider. Writers are only human. (Or at least most of us are. I'm betting you are human.) We're not divine beings who can churn out perfection as easily as going for a morning constitutional. (And I mean that in the euphemistic sense.)
In the end, what's important is you keep writing, no matter if you think what you're writing is utter and absolute crap. Just keep going, take it bird by bird, and go on. If you have to keep it dry and robotic, then so be it. You can always touch it up later. Until you're done and have that elusive first draft.