“Bird by Bird” is not about birds

This is my second year as a writing fellow at CUNY. Afforded a good deal of freedom in the role this year, I have been rooting around for helpful writing resources for students (and for myself). In the fall, several people recommended Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. One of these kind people bought me a copy of the book (get yourself a committee member who buys books for students).

When people recommend Bird by Bird, they often talk about the anecdote that gives the book its title. As a child, Lamott’s brother anguished over a school assignment in which he had to compile a book of birdlife. Lamott’s father (also a writer) provided the sage advice to proceed with the assignment bird by bird. Bird by Bird came recommended for precisely this takeaway message. Academic writing is less daunting when you break it down into small and steady tasks: paragraph by paragraph, bird by bird.

I started reading Bird by Bird during a day off, in the sunny window of a cafe in the Catskills. I started reading without a real sense of how far into it I would get, reminding myself that good academics don’t need to read every page or word.

Lamott has plenty of helpful advice about how to write bird by bird: how to break assignments down into smaller pieces; how to get words out before worrying about getting words right; how to sit down and write steadily at a desk, and how to keep writing when away from it. This is all, I suppose, what I went to the book for, and what I knew I would find there.

From early in the book, however, it struck me that Bird by Bird is not really about birds – not even metaphorical ones. Lamott’s most insistent piece of advice is that writing for the purpose of being published is never satisfying. To find some degree of contentment as a writer, you have to write for the sake of writing, and not for the sake of publishing.

The conversations that I have about academic writing are absolutely never about finding contentment. They are about efficiency, about how to write better for the purposes of finishing a thesis, or bagging a publication. They are about managing time, or managing notes and drafts. They are about the strict and unspoken conventions of academic genres: the course paper, the abstract, the journal article, the statement of interest. I suspect many of us get into academia because we like writing and reading – I certainly did. How long does that passion last, before we start to succumb to the publish or perish logic? Before the process of writing becomes something to get out of the way?

I started reading Bird by Bird out of an interest in being a more efficient writer. In getting more ideas down, and thus getting more publications up. Even my approach to reading the book shows how little we value writing (or reading) as more than a means to an end. I thought I would read what I could in a bit of free time. I figured I would extract some key messages and get onto more important reading. Cover to cover is not proper political science reading.

And yet, if we devalue the writing of our discipline – of our colleagues and mentors – to the point where the abstract, intro and (maybe) conclusion are all we have time for, then how could we ever come to value and esteem our own writing process? It is odd to realize just how little academia values one of the central practices of the vocation. We are trained and socialized into acting as though good writing is about getting published ,and good reading is about not giving too much time to those publications. From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that I rarely hear political scientists express a love of writing (or at least a love of writing political science).

This semester, I am thinking a lot about how to bring passion and contentment back into academic writing. To start with, I am celebrating rough drafts as the freest stage of writing. I am also trying to do as much low stakes writing as possible. The kind of writing that might be good in itself, and not good for what it becomes. I am reading slowly, sometimes cover to cover. The passion hasn’t exactly come flooding back, but that is hardly surprising. The academic conventions that leech the joy out of reading and writing are deeply set. They will not be easy to shift.