Wired Birds

One of the joys connected to reading and writing is reading books about the craft of writing.

Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in many ways represent two opposite ends of the spectrum of writing guides.

I first came across these two books in two very different ways. And it is perhaps fair to say that the ways in which I encountered them shaped my experiences reading them.

Wired for Story

Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook ...

Browsing my library’s catalogue one day, I saw Wired for Story‘s distinctive ink-splotch cover, and was intrigued by its tagline. I had never heard of Cron’s work before seeing this book, so the promise that it would combine research and creativity – a combination I’m passionate about as a former research professional and current writer – was all I had to go on.

Although I ended up borrowing Bird by Bird from the same library, my introduction to this book could hardly have been more different. I was already somewhat familiar with Lamott’s work, having read her popularly circulated chapter ‘Shitty First Drafts’. I was aware that this chapter is set by many writing teachers around the world. And I had read numerous, glowing reviews of the book over the years, many of which called it a ‘bible’. In fact, the blurb itself describes Bird by Bird as ‘the bible of writing guides’.

Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird - Anne Lamott - 9781786898555 - Allen & Unwin - Australia

When I discovered Bird by Bird had been added to my library’s catalogue, I immediately noted it down to borrow on my next visit. To my surprise, not only was it available for me to borrow when I made it to the library, but it was displayed up front and centre, on the ‘New Additions’ shelf, standing out like a beacon. Its yellow cover with focus lines immediately drew my attention to the words ‘The New York Times bestseller’. The edition my library acquired was published by Canongate’s ‘The Canons’ series, the back cover copy describing the book not only as ‘the bible of writing guides’ but noting that Bird by Bird has been a perennial seller since it was first published in the 1990s.

It is fair to say that my expectations were running high. Bird by Bird is undeniably a part of the cannon. A NYT bestseller. A perennial favourite for decades. A widely read, widely recommended book (Bird by Bird is Lamott’s best and most reviewed book over a long career of both fiction and non-fiction writing). Not just ‘a bible’ but ‘the bible’ of writing guides (emphasis added).

A writing bible

According to dictionary.com, the word ‘bible’ (usually in lowercase) is used to refer to reference books ‘accepted as authoritative, informative, or reliable’ as in ‘He regarded that particular bird book as the birdwatcher’s bible’ (No, I didn’t cherrypick that example. The dictionary is as obsessed with birds as Lamott!)

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But when people describe Bird by Bird as a ‘bible’, I think they’re actually referring to something closer to the primary meaning of the word (usually written with an initial capital, Bible): ‘a collection of sacred writings’.

Lamott is a spiritual woman whose writings on aspects of faith, prayer, mercy and grace actually outweigh her (not insubstantial!) fiction work. And I wouldn’t be surprised if her familiarity with these topics influenced her writing of Bird by Bird.

What is a bible?

For many people of faith, sacred texts like the Torah, Bible, Koran, or Bhagavad Gita provide guidance on living. But not in the way that a ‘Dummies’ Guide’ or ‘Complete Idiot’s Guide’ might. Rather, they do so by sharing stories and allegories which invite contemplation.

Photoshop CS2 Bible: Laurie Ulrich Fuller: 9780764589720: Amazon ...

Look up ‘bible’ + any software name on Amazon, and chances are, you’ll find books like ‘Microsoft Excel 2019 Bible’ or ‘Photoshop CS2 Bible’ or ‘The Computer Programming Bible: A Step by Step Guide’.

These reference materials use the word ‘bible’ in a manner almost the opposite to what is meant by Bible with a capital letter to refer to holy books.

While both holy scriptures and software manuals often claim authority and comprehensiveness, they are worlds apart in terms of breaking things down step-by-step. Collections of writings described as Bibles with an uppercase B tend to invite contemplation and interpretation along with some prescriptive laws, while writings described as bibles with a lowercase b tend to break complicated topics into very small steps with little room for allegory or spiritual inspiration.

What are these guides?

Where Wired for Story is indubitably a well-researched, well-reasoned step-by-step guide for writers, Bird by Bird is more akin to a collection of writings. One top reviewer on Goodreads even commented ‘I ended up feeling I’d learned a lot more about Anne Lamott than I’d learned about writing’.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, if you look closely, you’ll see the subtitle of Bird by Bird is ‘Instructions on Writing and Life’. Contrast that with Wired for Story’s ‘The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence’.

If you are looking for a collection of snippets about living a writerly life, Bird by Bird is the book for you. What you won’t find, however, is a ‘guide’, a lowercase ‘bible’ akin to a ‘Microsoft Excel Bible’. Indeed, it is not until 43 pages through the book (or almost 15% in) that Lamott says ‘Next are the two single most helpful things I can tell you about writing.’

Two things

For the record, those two concepts are:

1. Short assignments

Lamott recommends breaking your overwhelming writing project down into small, bite-size chunks you can work on. (This principle is what the book is named after, as we shall discover below) And,

2. Shitty first drafts

Arguably Lamott’s most famous contribution to the literature on the craft of writing.

I think of it like this: Ira Glass talks about the taste-talent gap. The distance between what you want to achieve (e.g. with your writing) versus what you can currently.

Lamott’s idea is that your first draft is just you telling yourself the story. It doesn’t have to be perfect. All writers write shitty first drafts, and without a shitty first draft, you won’t be able to produce a kind-of-okay second draft, a pretty good third draft, and so on.

What Bird by Bird is

These two concepts are genuinely useful. But they comprise just 12 pages of Bird by Bird’s 290 pages (or around 4% of the book). In much the same way that only five of the Christian Bible’s dozens of books focus on law while the remainder comprises history, wisdom, prophecy, gospels, letters, and apocalyptic writings.

For much of the remaining 96%, Bird by Bird is an intensely personal book. It is filled with tongue-in-cheek remarks and jokes – which, as with any form of humour, are very much subject to personal taste. Some readers, for example, may take issue with the author’s experience of ‘starving to death’ while staying behind to watch a ‘wracked and emaciated’ teenage girl finish her race at the Special Olympics being described as ‘excruciating’.

Likewise, we non-Americans may find her assertion that American novels need to have hope, but French novels need not because the Americans ‘mostly win wars’ while ‘they [the French] lose them’ leaves a bitter taste. Lamott assures us that she loves Isabel Allende’s work, as she loves a number of South and Central American writers, but what she doesn’t love is how her students then try to emulate their ‘wild stories’, full of ‘lots of birds and maidens with gongs and bells and whistles.’ Writing like this, Lamott says, ‘is like primitive art.’

Throughout, Lamott likens writing to birthing and raising a child. Toddlers, she tells us, will at times “make you feel as if you have violated some archaic law in their personal Koran and you should die, infidel”. At other times, toddlers will “reach out and touch you like adoring grandparents on their deathbeds”, and at others, she says, her three year old son treated her “like I was the bunny at his own private Playboy Club and he had run out of drinks half an hour before.”

The title of Bird by Bird is inspired by a story from Lamott’s childhood: When her 10 year-old brother didn’t work on his school report on birds until the night before it was due, her writer father gave him this advice to deal with the monumental task ahead:

“Just take it bird by bird.”

Bird by Bird with Annie is also the title of a film about Lamott’s life.

The book’s early chapters focus on Lamott’s genesis, telling the history of her father’s life as a writer. She shares wise sayings scribbled down on index cards over the years, letters to her son or from editors (in fact, there’s one whole chapter called Letters), and even some pretty apocalyptic scenes when her anxieties get too much and she turns to drugs and alcohol.

Reviews of Bird by Bird are overwhelmingly positive. But of those few which are critical, one stood out to me – a writer remarked he had been recommended the book to inspire him to take up writing again, but found it had the opposite effect.

I can see where he is coming from.

Much of the advice Lamott shares is genuinely inspirational.

“You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories, walking and wool-gathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place.”

Likewise, her advice that you don’t have time to waste not writing because you’re afraid you won’t be good enough. We should risk being unliked – something I agree with thoroughly.

“Tell the truth as you understand it” Lamott says. “If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act – truth is always subversive.”

Yet, at other times, Lamott describes her often fraught and painful relationship to writing. These accounts are in many ways refreshingly honest and relatable. But she also essentially tells us to give up expecting any form of joy from our writing. Instead, joy for Lamott is her church and her son. It’s something she feels more often outdoors than at her desk.

What Bird by Bird is not

Bird by Bird isn’t a ‘bible’ in the lowercase guide book sense. Although the chapters are loosely organised into five parts (Writing, The Writing Frame of Mind, Help Along the Way, Publication – And Other Reasons to Write, and The Last Class) its advice is quite unevenly spaced. In some cases, the reader is even essentially advised to pray.

In the chapter Perfectionism, Lamott comments

“It’s easier if you believe in God, but not impossible if you don’t. If you believe, then this God of yours might be capable of relieving you of some of this perfectionism… If you don’t believe in God, it may help to remember this line of Geneen Roth’s: that awareness is learning to keep yourself company.”

Another chapter considers jealousy. Here, we learn that “some of the most wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know – people who are, in other words, not you.”

While I assume this (and Lamott’s assertion that when our friends are successful, we’ll end up wishing prostrate trouble on them!) are intended tongue-in-cheek, Jealousy is not the straightforward dismissal of jealous feelings I thought the chapter might be. This is not a chapter which advises us to find meaning in our work beyond praise and accolades. To find joy in the success of our friends and to learn from them. To make a clear-headed assessment of our own skills and shortcomings and strive to improve.

Instead, Lamott assures us she is a ‘better writer’ than the writer she’s jealous of. So why does this writer have accolades heaped upon them? In short, the ignorance of the general public:

“the public herd mentality is not swayed by the magic that happens when mind and heart and muse and hand and paper work together. Rather, it is guided by talk shows and movie producers and TV commercials.”

Rivers flowing into a lake

In fairness, Lamott does cite Jean Rhys’ advice that writers are all little rivers flowing into the one lake, and what is good for one is good for all.

I’m inclined to agree with this view. Writers who attract an audience are getting more people interested in reading either in general, or a specific genre – and that benefits us all, readers and writers alike. But Lamott undercuts this somewhat by telling the person who recommended this quote “You are a very, very angry person”.

Ultimately, Lamott takes a ‘sabbatical’ from her friendship with the writer she was jealous of. The chapter concludes:

“And finally I felt that my jealousy and I were strangely beautiful, like the men in the AIDS movie, doing the dance of the transformed self, dancing like an old long-legged bird.”

Write to write, not to be published

Early on in her book, Lamott laments that many of her students don’t want to write, they want to be published. They come to her with questions like “How do we find an agent?”

“I sigh,” says Lamott:

“When you are ready, there are books that list agents. You can select a few names and write to them and ask if they would like to take a look at your work. Mostly they will not want to. But if you are really good, and very persistent, someone will eventually read your material and take you on. I can almost promise you this. However, in the meantime, we are going to concentrate on writing itself”

This sounds like very sensible advice. Yet Lamott says her students don’t believe her: “They want agents, and to be published. And they also want refunds.”

I suspect part of the problem relates to what Lamott reveals in the following paragraphs: most of her students have already been writing for a long time, and most of them are already quite good.

Even though they have enrolled in a writing class, I suspect what a good many of Lamott’s students – and her readers – actually want is advice on getting published. So I was rather satisfied to glimpse an entire chapter dedicated to publication at the back of the book.

“Let’s talk publication”

Lamott says. Finally!

“Say you’ve finished your book, or a draft of the book, or a whole lot of stories, and you send them off to your agent, if you have one, or to a friend’s agent, or to an agent you’ve found listed in the Yellow Pages or in the Literary Market Place. Say you actually already have an editor somewhere, or an editor who once wrote you an admiring rejection letter, so you send your book or stories to him or her and to a couple of friends.”

I imagine this is all far easier to imagine if you have an agent or editor, or are friends with a published author. Unfortunately, Lamott glosses over the business of how one might go about approaching an agent one has found in a listing. And to be frank, we shouldn’t really expect such advice. As she explains, she started out by sending her work to her father’s agent. But not all of us have author parents with agents to send our manuscripts off to.

If you’re looking for a guide to writing, which has some insights about life in the mix, rather than a guide to life which has some insights about writing, then Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story or Story Genius might be more your speed.

Plotting vs. Pantsing

Plotting (working out what you want to write before you start writing) versus pantsing (writing by the ‘seat of your pants’) is one of the most hotly contested debates in the writing world. Perhaps the best illustration of the difference between the “Wired” and “Birds” approaches comes from Cron’s analysis of Lamott’s most famous chapter.

In her article ‘9 Tips for Writing a Really Good “Shitty First Draft”’ Cron says:

“there’s a huge difference between writing a shitty draft of an actual story and simply “letting it all pour out and romping all over the place,” as Anne Lamott advises writers to do in Bird by Bird. I know, Lamott’s book is fabulous and she makes a gazillion great points, but this one has been universally misinterpreted, undermining thousands of writers, many of whom may have given up as a result”

So what’s the problem?

In Bird by Bird, Lamott devotes an entire chapter to the topic of school lunches. She recommends that writers who are stuck about what to write should write about school lunches. Just to get something down on paper.

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and ...

“Now, who knows if any of this is usable material?” Lamott asks. “There’s no way to tell until you’ve got it all down, and then there might just be one sentence or one character or one theme that you end up using.”

Contrast this approach with that summarised in the footnote to the title of Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius, the follow-up to Wired for Story (Yes, her title has a footnote). The book’s full title is Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel*

*Before you waste three years writing 327 pages that go nowhere.

Headlights

Early on in Bird by Bird, Lamott shares a quote from E.L. Doctorow, describing the writing of a novel as “like driving a car at night”:

“You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I’m with Doctorow so far.

Lamott continues: “You don’t have to see where you’re going. You don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way.” But then she bends the analogy a little further than I’m comfortable with: “You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have heard.”

I think Doctorow’s analogy is excellent, in large part because you do need more than simply two or three feet of vision in front of you.

You may not need to see your destination exactly, but you do need to know where it is. Then, along the way, you might refer to road signs or a map, or rely on GPS, or someone in the passenger seat for guidance.

But getting into a car at night with no idea of where you want to end up and nothing to help you get there is unlikely to result in you winding up where you want to be.

Or, even knowing if you’ve arrived. Which might explain the necessity of the brief chapter later in Lamott’s book, How Do You Know When You’re Done? which begins

“This is a question I always ask. I don’t know how to answer it. You just do.”

Story Genius is devoted to ensuring that you know where you are going before you set out on your journey so that, even though you might only have a few feet of clear vision ahead at any given time, you can at least make decisions that are likely to get you where you want to go, rather than making wrong turns, driving around in circles, or worse, veering off the road.

Polaroids

Lamott’s philosophy when it comes to the development of stories is made clearer in the following chapter, Polaroids, in which she likens the writing of a first draft to watching a Polaroid develop:

“You can’t – and in fact you’re not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it is finished developing. First you just point at what has caught your attention and take the picture”

Photography is an art form, often dismissed as mere ‘pointing’ and ‘shooting’. I’m not sure whether Lamott is a photographer herself, but I think there’s a little more to it. Even for a seemingly ‘casual’ medium like Polaroid photographs. (Which is one of the reasons I decided to feature some amazing photographs in this post).

Personally, I’m more inclined to agree with one of the most famous quotes about photography, from Ansel Adams:

“You don’t take a photograph. You make it.”

When I photograph something that has caught my attention, I don’t just point and shoot. Even amateurs like myself who might not describe their photography in terms of framing and composition nevertheless, at a minimum, generally ensure the subject of their photograph is in the shot.

If you’re photographing your child’s birthday, you might ensure both the cake, and the tops of everyone’s heads are visible. You might wait until everyone has their eyes open. You’ll likely let the subjects know you’re about to photograph them by saying ‘cheese’ so everyone smiles.

And if you don’t do these things, no amount of shaking that Polaroid is going to open your subjects’ eyes, stitch the tops of their heads back on, or un-blur the icing on the cake.

Measure twice, cut once

In woodwork, there is a piece of wisdom: measure twice, cut once. In other words, it is always easier to produce a better final product by planning carefully than by trying to fix the results of a lack of planning.

These days, Photoshop or Lightroom might give us the opportunity to improve photographs – even scanned Polaroids – far beyond what Lamott could have reasonably imagined in the early nineties when she wrote Bird by Bird. But as Andrew Goodall points out in Photo Editing is No Substitute for Photography Technique, it is only by learning to make good photographs that you can become a good photographer. Software is no substitute for skill, he concludes.

To be clear, Goodall is not arguing that photographers shouldn’t use Photoshop. Software can be used to make small tweaks that transform a good photograph into a great photograph. Rather, the problem arises when photographers focus on learning to fix their mistakes, instead of learning not to make them in the first place.

With the right software and editing skills, it is possible to draw on a fake haircut or paste in eyes. To re-write the ‘happy birthday’ icing on the cake.

But it will never look as good as a photograph that was taken properly in the first place.

And you will have wasted a huge amount of time fixing mistakes that could have been easily avoided by taking a few more seconds to frame the photograph properly before you pressed the shutter button.

Most people, faced with a whole mess of ugly photographs on their hard drive will just give up.

And the same is true of many writers.

Plot vs. Story

Lamott’s chapter on plot begins “Plot is the main story of your book or short story.” And I have to admit that, for a long time, I thought this was the case, too. It wasn’t until reading Cron’s Wired for Story and Story Genius (both of which, notably, have ‘story’ in the title) that I understood the subtle but very important difference between ‘plot’ and ‘story’.

Plot refers to the external things that happen to your character. Story refers to the internal changes that happen within your character.

Lamott, perhaps unsurprisingly if we understand her book as a collection of writings on the writerly life rather than a writing guide, doesn’t cover these aspects. She merely goes on to say:

“If you are looking for long, brilliant discussions of plot, E.M. Forster and John Gardner have written books in which they discuss it so lucidly and wisely that they will leave you howling like a wolf. I just want to add a few thoughts here, things that I pass on to my students when they seem especially bitter and confused.”

The first of these thoughts is that “Plot grows out of character”. This may seem pedantic, but I believe story grows out of character. Plot may be influenced by character, in the sense that someone’s thoughts and feelings may influence their actions. But other things which they have limited or no control over will happen to them too. (Covid19, for example, is part of the plot of all of our lives this year, but it didn’t grow out of your or my character).

I believe this distinction is related to an equally subtle yet important distinction in our life philosophies.

Most of us have heard the advice that you have to let bad things happen to your beloved characters, or you’ll end up with a very boring book. This is advice Lamott shares, too. But her rationale bears examination.

In an earlier chapter, Lamott says:

“Bad things happen to good characters, because our actions have consequences, and we do not all behave perfectly all the time.”

In other words, bad things happen to people through some fault of their own.

If this is the case, then plot and story are, as Lamott claims, the same thing. The stuff that happens to you (the plot) – whether that be winning the lottery or suffering from cancer – are a result of your thoughts and actions.

But I don’t think it’s that simple. Rather, our thoughts and feelings might influence the situations we wind up in and the activities we undertake, which in turn alters our thoughts and feelings and influences our future actions and directions. But at the same time, things we would never imagine in our wildest dreams (or nightmares) sometimes happen because of the thoughts and actions of others, and natural processes.

Sometimes, good things happen to people who have done ‘bad’ things, and bad things happen to ‘good’ people. To the completely innocent. Like the baby who died at just five months old (a story Lamott shares in her book).

The moral point of view

The chapter in Bird by Bird which resonated with me the most was The Moral Point of View. In it, Lamott writes “The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.” This could be something as simple as how to take care of one another. “Some of us are interested in any light you may be able to shed on this,” she says, “and we will pay a great deal extra if you can make us laugh about it.”

Our core ethical concept is something we can summarise in a sentence. Like the Dalai Lama’s “My true religion is kindness”. But that is too short a book. Instead, Lamott says, we must “embroider it a little”.

Shuffling Cards vs. Cause & Effect

In another chapter on plot, Plot Treatment, Lamott recounts a meeting with her editor.

After receiving the second draft of her second novel, Lamott’s editor sent her a letter which began “This is perhaps the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write.” Ouch. Not a great start. His advice? To put it away, and start work on another project.

Having spent most of her advance already, Lamott rented a room by the river, took some time out, then, called her editor and told him she knew what she was doing now, and was going to prove it.

She took her manuscript, lay it on the ground, shuffled bits around, added transitions, took bits out, and reshaped whole scenes. She wrote to her editor to say she was coming to meet him. And, full of hope, she did.

When they met, the first thing he said was “I’m sorry.”

Another not-great start.

“I am so, so sorry,” he said, “But it still doesn’t work.”

What was the problem with this manuscript Lamott had slaved over?

“He still didn’t understand why certain things happened the way they did, or why some things happened to begin with, and most importantly, why so little happened at all.”

Why do things happen?

A popular piece of advice in the writing community concerns the use of index cards. Bird by Bird has a whole chapter devoted to index cards. And in Story Genius, Lisa Cron recommends their use too.

Here’s how the advice usually goes (gleaned from countless Pinterest and blog posts I’ve encountered): Write down a bunch of stuff that sounds exciting, shuffle it around. If you’re a real plotter type, look for cards that fulfill certain plot points, like a card that would make a good ‘inciting incident’ or ‘climax’. Then fill in the rest of the spaces, and BINGO! You have a story. Right!?

Not really.

In both Wired for Story and Story Genius, Cron includes a chapter on cause and effect.

Every chapter in Wired for Story zeroes in on a ‘cognitive secret’ from research in the field of psychology, and a ‘story secret’ – a way for us to use that cognitive insight to make a more satisfying, more engaging book.

Chapter eight’s cognitive secret and story secret made me stop, rewind, and listen again (I listened to Wired for Story as an audio book):

Cognitive secret: from birth, our brain’s primary goal is to make causal connections. If this, then that.

Story secret: a story follows a cause and effect trajectory from start to finish.

Cron’s point here is almost embarrassingly simple. Things don’t just happen in some random order. Rearranging a series of index cards will not give you a story. Even though this is what I tried many, many times following the wisdom of The Internet.

Tell a story

So what happened to Lamott’s manuscript?

It wasn’t until she was forced to explain to her editor exactly why things happened and what the story was that she turned the corner. “I want you to write that book you just described to me,” her editor said. “You haven’t done it here. Go off somewhere and write me a treatment, a plot treatment. Tell me chapter by chapter what you just told me in the last half hour.”

“It worked” Lamott concludes. She received the last of her advance, was able to pay back the aunt she’d borrowed money from, and the resultant novel was her most successful.

I believe it is precisely this kind of stress that Cron’s book is aiming to save writers from. The sort which had Lamott resort to a ‘dozen or so’ drinks… and then a ‘few hundred more’… and then a ‘bit of cocaine’. The sort of stress which resulted in her feeling depressed, then enraged. Which resulted in her having to borrow money from family and live with friends.

Exploration

I don’t mean to suggest that exploratory writing is not useful. But I can’t help but wonder whether Lamott might have saved considerable time – and money, and anguish – had she taken a more rational approach to her writing earlier on. (Lamott describes rational thinking as a form of ‘colorectal theology’, i.e. having one’s head up one’s ass).

At present, I am working on my own second novel, and finding Cron’s work has saved me time and anguish. I don’t have an advance or an editor to work with, so perhaps the advice in Story Genius is even more crucial for an indie author like me.

Cron has, in essence, created a tiny test writers can use for any scene, all boiled down to the size of an index card. Her guide to Story Genius for pansters has everything you need to know. (Her website has a whole host of free resources for all kinds of writers)

Wired birds

Lamott, too, comments on how we are ‘wired’ as humans, although seemingly from her own personal observations and lived experience rather than from a basis of research. “We are wired as humans to be open to the world instead of enclosed in a fortified, defensive mentality.” She says

“My priest friend, Rankin, for instance, describes himself as a cheerful pessimist, and this attitude is enough to rescue him from the bleakness that would otherwise have him physically curled up in the fetal position. Now, come to think of it, this autism is a great position for one of your characters to end up in near the climax, because the killing of this deadness is a great theme. In real life, people don’t actually curl up in the fetal position to tune out their feelings.”

I’m not sure that I’d use the word ‘wired’ like that – each of us have different life experiences, and some of us may be more insular than others. And I don’t really understand Lamott’s definitions here of ‘autism’ and ‘real life’. But I agree with her point that by giving through our writing, we can help our readers ‘be braver, to be better than they are, be open to the world again.’ What a miraculous gift this is. And it’s this kind of giving which I think is at the core of Cron’s philosophy too.

The very first cognitive secret of Story Genius is that we think in story, which allows us to envision the future. Cron builds upon this, explaining in later chapters how our brains use stories to simulate how we might navigate difficult situations in our own futures.

This is exactly what I aim to do in my writing. To help myself – and hopefully others – envision a better future.

In sum, Wired for Story and Bird by Bird are very different books. One is a guide to writing using insights from life, a reference work ‘bible’, the other is a meditation on life with insights about writing, a ‘Bible’-like collection of wisdom and inspiration and pain. And as such, I would recommend writers read both.

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