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Taking Things Bird by Bird

Updated: Jun 12, 2023




I arrived home late last night after nearly two weeks away in Costa Rica and Panama. In Costa Rica, I attended a retreat called "Tame Your Inner Critic" by Neal Allen and his wife, the New York Times bestselling author Anne Lamott. The retreat was worthwhile—I learned a lot—and the location superb. I will be sharing more about Costa Rica soon!


Today, however, I wanted to share the highlight of the retreat: meeting Anne Lamott. Anne, or "Annie" as she likes to be called, has published seven novels and several nonfiction books over the last forty years. I discovered her through her book on writing, Bird by Bird, but actually, much of her work centers around things like alcoholism, motherhood, and loss. These may sound like heavy topics—and they are—but Annie takes them in stride with self-effacing humor and honesty, and the effect is memorable and hilarious. Annie is currently working on her next book, Somehow: Thoughts on Love, which is scheduled to be published on April 10th (her seventieth birthday!) next year.


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Annie has a fascinating life story that has shaped much of her writing. She was raised in Marin County, California by intellectual atheist parents. Her father was a writer who wrote every morning from 5am until breakfast while her mother mostly stayed out of his way. Growing up, Annie never felt good enough, and in her twenties, she found herself living on a houseboat, addicted to drugs and alcohol.


This is when Jesus came in. (Jesus is another of her favorite topics.)

When she was hungover, Annie would go looking for free food at a nearby flea market, which happened to be across the street from a church. One day, still nursing a headache, she heard music coming from the church and decided to go in. There, she found people who welcomed her just as she was—whether she wanted them to or not.


"Jesus is like a feral cat," Annie joked at the retreat. "He is the cat who follows you home that you want to kick out of the way—I don't want a cat!—but eventually you say, 'Okay, fiiine...' and let him in."


Annie talked a lot about Jesus at the retreat, but she didn't always call him by that name. She also called him GUS (Great Universal Spirit), Divine Energy, and other, less orthodox names. She is not considered a Christian writer (though she has written spiritual books), and she is not a fundamentalist, but her Christian faith is a big part of who she is.


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Annie gave two talks at the retreat. In the first, she shared stories like the ones above about her life. In the second, she talked about writing. Her talk on writing was a kick in the pants for me: If you want to call yourself a writer, you have to write! But she was also kind. In fact, the title Bird by Bird comes from a story she used to tell her writing students when they were stressed:

[Fifty] years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which 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."


Often in life I feel like I'm winging it. I attended this retreat on a whim and decided to extend my trip to visit Panama because, "I'm already here! Why not?" I don't always know what I'm doing, and I haven't been writing enough lately, but like we discussed in the retreat, I'm going to shush my inner critic (for now, anyway) and just take things bird by bird.


Annie reading part of her new manuscript.


She signed my book!





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