A Professor’s Journal: The art of writing bird by bird or one bird at a time

Does the act of writing remain a mystery to you? Do you cringe at the thought of those book reviews, research papers and essays that must be turned in this semester? Sometimes I sit down in my writing cabin and the words flow.

Now, whether the words make sense, or whether they tell the tale that I am trying to tell, is another matter altogether.

At other times I sit staring off into space and find that the computer screen is still blank. The sportswriter Red Smith said it best.

“Writing is easy,” he wrote, “you just sit down at a typewriter, open up a vein and bleed it out drop by drop.”

Why is it that some of the sweetest things, the most enjoyable of life’s offerings, are so many times the hardest to endure, or the most gut-wrenching to complete?

Writing, for me, is hard work. Yet, the process of writing, as difficult as it may be, is also fulfilling and satisfying work. Someone said that he really did not wish to be a writer; he wanted rather to be someone who had written. But it is in the act of writing itself, much like the act of living, that a writer may be fulfilled. We would not say that we would not wish to live, but only to have lived. Would we?

An editor encouraged me to forge ahead on an overdue manuscript. He put me on to a book by Anne Lamott titled “Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” I ordered the book immediately, and, putting off my writing, read it cover to cover.

A prolific and inspirational writer of essays, novels and memoirs, Lamott offers instruction on the art of writing, but more importantly for me, on the art of living. After lending another one of her books, “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith,” to a history department colleague, she thanked me and after reading the book remarked that Lamott was “quite a character.” Quite a character indeed!

Lamott’s salty language belies her commitment to a pilgrimage of religious faith and a determination to live a life of service. The title of her book, Bird By

Bird, comes from a word of encouragement given by her father to her older brother.

“Thirty years ago,” she writes, “my older brother, who was 10 years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. (It) was due the next day. 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 by 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.”

The wise father’s instruction gave solace to a son struggling with a project, the completion of which made seemingly impossible by the son’s procrastination. The story gave encouragement to me because of my own penchant for procrastination and my own unwillingness to focus on the task at hand.

When I am tempted to allow writing projects and committee reports to pile up shoulder high on my desk, or when I allow “thank you’s” to go unwritten or unsaid, long walks and talks with those I love to be put off and common decencies and kindnesses to be neglected altogether, I can tell myself to at least start somewhere. At least do something. Word by word.

“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.