Bird by Bird

Ten days into the new year and I’ve already broken the resolutions I didn’t make, missing a day of exercise, eating a dessert I’d sworn off, and skipping a day at my desk. Back in the years when I made resolutions, these deviations from perfection would send me into a tailspin of failure: If I missed a day of exercise, I’d give up exercising all together; if I ate a piece of cake, I might as well eat the whole thing; if I missed a day of writing, I’d better just accept my amateur status and throw in the pen. But I really don’t make resolutions any more. Now, I set goals.

Resolutions are predicated on the false idea of perfection, which would be boring even if it were achievable. Mostly, resolutions are recipes for failure. Setting and meeting goals, on the other hand, are steps to success. So while many of us vowed to undertake big, bold projects this year, the daily nitty-gritty of showing up, sitting down, and putting pixels to the screen is what matters. In her wonderful book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott tells the story behind the title:

“…my older brother . . .was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write . . . due the next day. . .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.”

So grand, big, writing goals are terrific, but the way to reach them is one word at a time. Lamott suggests “short assignments” and “shitty first drafts,” which I think are two good ideas.

Short assignments are achievable: a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, even a page of notes. After a while, these pieces accumulate and form the skeleton of a body of work. With permission to write “shitty first drafts” there’s hope for an improved second draft, a good third draft, and the possibility of achieving excellence in the fourth or fifth. It’s dedication that matters, not improbable resolutions.

Yes, I’ve set myself one big goal to draft a new novel this year. But that’s not what I think about when I show up at my desk in the morning. Instead, I write five hundred to two thousand word bits, giving myself permission to write junk. I’m not writing about birds, but about invented characters who act, react and change in a fictive world of my own creation. I’m not yet clear exactly who, where or how these characters and events come together, but I know if I keep showing up day by day, I’ll figure it out, word-by-word.

Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” set in Vermont in 1964. She is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches for the Vermont Humanities Council. Learn more at her website:

33 thoughts on “Bird by Bird

  1. Bird by Bird is one of my favorite books about writing!

    I rarely set resolutions for myself I think I will reach completely. What I like to do is think BIG, but concentrate on the “bird by bird.” Thinking BIG keeps me inspired. Working small keeps me grounded.

    I resolve to finish my first book and thinking about the end point keeps me going. But my focus is on the baby steps. And so it goes with all my writing goals.

    It’s like hiking a mountain – if I happen to reach the summit, that’s great, but if not, I can still look back and see how far I’ve gotten through slow, steady steps. And, like you, I don’t beat myself up for not always reaching the top, or for sliding backwards. It’s about the view and for sure, that’s always changing with each step. Actually, its good to stop now and then and take it all in. Otherwise, how will you realize how fantastic the view from the summit will be?

    Think big, work small. Reach high and above all, enjoy the view from wherever you are!

    • Laura,
      I like your mountain-hiking analogy. One step at a time – and enjoy the view along the way. Thanks for writing, Deborah.

  2. A good resolution is exercise *most* days. Every day will just make you feel like a failure when it you miss a day. You’re right, small goals help, but it’s also good to have a large goal set; I’m personally motivated by goals and deadlines.

    • If goals and rewards work for you, chances are good they’ll work for your girls, too. Thanks for writing. Deborah.

  3. Word by word, bird by bird, flight of fancy by flight of dancy–that is how I write, as well. I’m not sure any other way is doable! Thank you so much for this great warning against desiring perfection!

    • Hi,
      I’m so glad that you found this helpful. I’ve learned about “drafting” from experience, because after writing the first draft of Elegy For A Girl (not the original title, even), I’ve rewritten it countless times, and today my agent started sending it out. I suspect I’m still not done. Good luck! And thanks for writing, Deborah.

  4. Being a somewhat amateur writer myself and trying to just follow my passions, posts like this are really inspiring for me. I adore the analogies you use here, and I just want to say thank you! For all of the writing that you do =)

  5. Thanks for your words from someone hoping to be more than someone often complimented for his good grammar and editing skills (of others’ works). This year I hope to begin writing creatively, either fiction or nonfiction, and I’m excited about how it will go. Wish me luck, and thanks again for your encouraging words.

  6. A fabulous, re-affirmative post! I used to make the resolutions and throw in the towel, this year I have goals! I am not doing too bad (I turn up most days to write/edit, the house still looks like a home, and I have only missed a couple of days of exercise!).

    I think it is incredibly true. When we see in 2013, shall we make New Year Goals?

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