The defining moment in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird comes when Anne’s younger brother panics the night before a school assignment is due.
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 about 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.”
Too often, we get overwhelmed by the mountains of information we need to understand, sift, organize, express, reorganize, and edit. We get paralyzed. To get unstuck, we need to follow the advice of Anne Lamott’s father. Just take one thing at a time.
After all, you can only write one sentence at a time, then only one paragraph at a time, only one section at a time. Why worry about the sentences, paragraphs, and sections you are not writing. Focus on just one thing, and you’ll be fine.
Over the years, when I get overwhelmed and stuck, I gather a set of pictures or clips that I need to describe and write about them, one at a time.
When the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington approached, Boston’s public radio station WGBH approached me about writing an overview of the march. WGBH was the only radio station to cover the event, live, moment by moment. We agreed that we could tell the march’s story–and the larger story of the civil rights movement–by focusing on one moment at a time.
Take a look at WGBH’s collection of clips and my annotations. How did we do?
Next time you feel overwhelmed, slow down. Just describe one thing at a time. Take things moment by moment.
Or, to use Anne Lamott’s expression, take it “bird by bird.”