6.10.14 Bird By Bird

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott


Library book / first read: 237/237.

CW: ableism, racism, fatphobia, other stuff

I was sort of done with this book at the point where Lamott recounts going to the Special Olympics as a reporter and SUFFERED TERRIBLY because the last contestant of this one race was HORRIBLY DAMAGED and REALLY SLOW even though it was ANNE LAMOTT’S LUNCH TIME and HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN TO ANNE LAMOTT, REPORTER AT THE SPECIAL OLYMPICS, but then!!!!! two people with Down Syndrome and a black man with no front teeth looked really happy because they had done something despite their lives being inherently awful, and this gave her an angle for her article.

(She later says that everyone at the Special Olympics looks “related.” I just don’t know where to start with that.)

Given this pretty horrible approach to disability you’ll forgive my hesitation in trusting Lamott with regards to mental illness? OH. BUT. LAMOTT. LOVES. MENTAL ILLNESS. She uses it, the phrase, like this funny hat that all writers find in their house and they’re not sure what it is or where it came from but isn’t it hysterical how it sort of gets everywhere, oh ho ho everything could be described as a hat! Her mental illnesses, her most mentally ill friend, you know, her students! All of them! Publishing will probably make all of your mental illnesses worse. What are they? Who knows. Mental illnesses are a clever idea, an artistic mode, they’re not literal illnesses. And then she refers to herself as rocking back and forth like a giant autistic child….and becoming slightly schizophrenic…and going into manic writing frenzies…and being obsessive-compulsive….

Maybe there are things pathologically wrong with Anne Lamott. I don’t know. She doesn’t address that. It seems unlikely that she is bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, schizoid and autistic. That’s just a lot at once. I have cause to doubt.

But one of the things that is generally wrong with Anne Lamott is that this is clearly all supposed to be FUNNY language. She also loves to include details about her friends to show how wacky and off-center they are–like, one of her good friends, Tom, is referred to as Tom once in the book, but he is ALWAYS! HER! GAY! PRIEST! FRIEND! My friend who is a gay priest. My gay Jesuit priest friend. Lest we forget.

Oh, and in case you thought a white woman in dreadlocks was not necessarily prone to racism, she also says this spectacular thing of Isabel Allende:

“Now, I love Ms. Allende’s work, as I love a number of South and Central American writers. When I read their books, I feel like I’m sitting around a campfire at night where they are spinning their wild stories…it’s like primitive art. It’s simple and decorative, with rich colors, satisfying old forms, and a lot of sophistication underneath that you feel but really don’t see.” (196)

Well, as long as all of the South and Central American writers remind you of excitingly barbaric outdoor lifestyles and primitive art. WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHY DIDN’T ANYONE STOP YOU????

So the whole book is just kind of like that, Lamott throwing out offense after offense (about poor people on trains, about fat people, about basically anyone she thinks might be a good metaphor) as if they are interesting playthings that don’t have much to do with real people’s lives. The book actually says a lot about attentiveness and love, but I get the feeling it’s the kind of love that’s about the person doing the loving, about what they feel and mine from the experience, and not about what they could be doing for the person they set their love on. (There’s also a lot of church in the book, and I wonder if anyone has pointed out to her ever that Christian love is at the core meant to be in the form of active service, not picking up the details of someone else’s pathetic, tragical life for a delicious little moment in your next book.)

I have almost nothing to say about how the book addresses its purpose. I don’t really like any of the authors she harps upon, incompatible focus may have impacted my ability to relate to her. None of her advice was revelatory to me, although a lot of it was familiar and I’m sure it might be helpful to many people.

Especially, let her remind you several times, for anyone who thinks that if you succeed in having a book published it will mean anything. She’s very clear on this point: you (she) will throw many tantrums throughout the process and then you (she) will find that nothing much comes of it when you (she) eventually succeed. There were some good tips, I think. I have forgotten them all already. I have heard that many people are deeply moved by this book. I have heard that.


*Inspiration porn is another word for this. Being an ass is another. Her words are literally, “tragedy transformed over the years into joy.” (42) Well if you want to be completely disgusting about it, Anne Lamott! By the way, that link is to a GREAT TED talk.



2 thoughts on “6.10.14 Bird By Bird

  1. Wow. THANK YOU. I found this site by googling “Ann Lamott racist” and this was the only page result to come up that didn’t go on about how enlightened she is, or even that she has special insight into racism because of her white girl dreads. (I don’t even know where to start with her dreads.)

    Here’s the passage that got me googling in the first place, from “Grace (Eventually)”. She’s describing living in Bolinas, California:

    “… a great place for ritual and celebrations-it was nearly as exotic as India, if you thought about it, but without all those dying animals in the streets and people defecating in the holy waters, which doesn’t really work for me at all.”

    Yup, she wrote that. And her editors apparently thought it was just fine.

    This sentence needs to be in a textbook on clueless liberal racism. It’s all there: New Age-inspired appropriation of India as imagined site of the unique spiritual awakening of rich white people? Check. Dismissal of a vastly complex country with two stereotypes? Check. India as primitive, dirty, shocking to westerners? Check. Death and shit in the streets? Check. Flippant coopting of the country and culture of millions of people in order to appear wry and funny (that “self-awareness” she’s so adored for)? Check. Total disregard for the history of western imperialism in India which created the baggage that makes comments like this so offensive in the first place? You bet.

    Her schtick is not funny. But objecting to it feels like a losing battle. Because, you know, it’s just light-hearted and we can’t take a joke.

    • I agree, and I’m glad you found my post vindicating! I had heard great things about Bird By Bird and was amazed at how unilaterally unpleasant it was towards everyone, and even towards writing itself. Whatever accolades she gets, it does NOTt take great insight or wit to be a flippant, self-congratulating bigot.

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