Lamott begins Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Lifewith a biographical sketch of her family. Her father and mother were readers and taught the three children, two brothers and the author, to read. The father was also a writer and had a group of friends who were writers that spent time at their house. This was stimulating to the young Anne, except that the father and his author friends were drinkers and sometimes passed out during dinner. Although as a child she wanted her father to have a regular job, she learned to be a writer from him by osmosis. He rose every day at 5:30 a.m. to write. He could not work for someone else; being a writer allowed him to be original.
Her father taught prisoners at San Quentin to write and read the Great Books. He taught his children to read and write every day. Anne started writing at seven or eight. She always looked small and shy, but she was funny, and it came out in her writing. Her first thrill of public attention was in second grade when a teacher read her poem about astronaut John Glenn to the class. She wanted to be a writer when she grew up but worried about the money. She also worried that writers were not respectable like doctors and lawyers. She wanted to belong and felt like a loser. She was embarrassed about her father's lifestyle and subject matter in his books, until a local piece of her father's was appreciated by all their neighbors in Marin County, California.
By high school, Anne had a reputation of being able to take material from the other kids and put it in writing with humor. This gave events a larger significance. In college, she dropped out at nineteen to become a writer. She had to find jobs to support her habit. Her father taught her to commit to finishing pieces she started. She took notes on people and conversations. She did this for years because her father had faith in her. When she was twenty-three, her father got brain cancer. She wrote about what he and the family members went through, and this became her first novel, Hard Laughter, published as he was dying. She learned that publication is not the greatest reward; the real reward is writing itself.
The rest of the introduction summarizes her experience as a writing teacher and what she tells her students. This is unfolded in the following chapters.
Commentary on the Introduction
Lamott is good at vignettes and uses this technique to teach writing to others. In every chapter she gives snippets of her life and experiences of writing to encourage people to trust themselves to put their own lives on paper as she has. She presents herself as precocious in some ways but an ordinary human being. Writing is the business of everyone, she implies. Her father even taught prisoners of San Quentin to express themselves. This short biography presents her father as a central figure and model for her as a writer. As a child she lamented his marginal status and odd lifestyle, but as she grew up she was proud of him and tried to emulate him. His belief in her is the reason she was able to continue. Ironically, his death transformed her into a professional writer, and she was happy that it was a kind of immortality for him. It was a gift she could give, repaying him and consoling him as he was dying.
Lamott has many metaphors for the writing process throughout her book. She wants writing to seem natural and not impossible. Here she explains that writing is like milking a cow. The words are already inside; they just have to be coaxed out. Her writing manual will not be like others, she warns; it is more personal, full of humor and inspiring stories.