Writing feedback, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott's primer on writing has some helpful tips.

It’s Day Two here at Write by the Lake, and in a few short hours, I’ll be getting some feedback on the opening pages to my book about Paul Tamburello, my former fourth grade teacher, mentor and friend.

Although I’ve worked on the project a long time and am eager to complete it this year, I will say that the first day’s emphasis on thinking through story, conflict, internal and external tension, and the choices of the protagonist and antagonist will take me a while to incorporate.

I don’t love the opening I have-it feels more like a placeholder for the ending than a dynamic way to begin the story-and am optimistic that some of my fellow participants’ comments will help me improve its quality.

We had eight 10-minute critiques yesterday, and, for the most part, people tread lightly.

That does not happen at all in one of my favorite scenes in Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s primer on writing.

In the context of making the point that truth can be a pinprick, rather than a hammer, she describes a situation in which one member of a writing group asks, in essence, “Is it just me, or is this piece terrible?”

Unsurprisingly, this question does not elicit a particularly positive reaction from the person whose work was being evaluated or from Lamott, the instructor.

I have written before about the importance of a culture of candor and hope that people are not too delicate with what I know are the piece’s shortcomings. Receiving such feedback used to be a painful experience in which I personally felt not so much attacked, but pained, that the reader was not having a rapturous experience and did not want instantly to recommend me to the Pulitzer, if not Nobel, Prize committees.

Working at The Chicago Reporter, where we toil for months on end for stories that cover barely five pages and occasionally elicit comment, has helped me thicken my feedback hide.

That said, I, as any honest writer will tell you, do put a lot into the work and do have more than a spectator’s interest in people’s response.

I’ll report later on what people say and whether anyone in the room matches her former student’s brutal honesty.


6 responses to “Writing feedback, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  1. Jeff, I didn’t know you were so close to finishing your book! Congrats! Anne Lamott is my favorite author. Did you know she was in town this past weekend? Carolyn See also writes a great book about what it really takes to write. You would enjoy it.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Mandy, for the tip. I’ll take a look at Carolyn See’s book soon.

      Hope all is well with you. Regards to your husband, and I hope to see you soon.


  2. Ah, a timely opportunity to share the latest word in corporate babble, namely “carefrontational”

    And I think our boyz in green overdosed on the carefrontational tonic last nite! It was so bad I pulled out my vuvuzela and just kept blowing until I passed out. Fortunately, Artest got my text at 3 am this morning, and confirmed he will be taking over game 7.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Let’s hope so! They’ve rebounded many times already, so hopefully have one more in them. Losing Perkins is a big blow.

      Bottom line: the C’s rebound and run, they win. They don’t, they lose.

      Looking forward to it!


  3. Sandra Hollingsworth

    Hi Jeff

    What is it about 4th grade teachers? I’m so looking forward to reading your book. My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Bolton was great. She introduced me to the arts and my love of the Theatre. And yes, at times it does take a pinprick!!!


    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Sandra, for sharing those fun memories of Mrs. Bolton. She sounds terrific!

      Hope all is well with you and your crew aka the Pookies. 🙂


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