Anne Lamott: Straight shooter
Published: March 3, 2003
|Anne Lamott succeeds with honest writing|
It is a chilly November night at a temple in suburban Minneapolis and Anne Lamott, bestselling writer and unabashed Christian, rather incongruously is keeping a synagogue full of 900 listeners in the palm of her hand for nearly two hours. Self-assured and witty, with a fine sense of comedic timing and perfectly pitched sarcasm, this dreadlocked woman in blue jeans, sweater and clogs speaks of things close to her heart, or just on her mind.
"The theme of my life," she says, "is the insistence on knowing what happened, and saying it out loud." She throws some darts at Republicans, tells of the wounds of a difficult childhood and her love for her friends, touches on her twin demons, alcohol and drug abuse. "Everything I've let go of," she says, "has claw marks on it." She describes the pleasures and challenges of her writing life, deplores society's insistence on quickie-grieving, does a riff on the American obsession with body image. "When you get to heaven and see what really matters," she says to laughter, "what your butt looks like is about number 180."
What makes Lamott's address so entertaining are the same qualities that explain her writing success: blunt honesty, a sometimes painful vulnerability, and no-holds-barred humor (though at the synagogue, she does clean up the profanity that can hilariously spew out in her writing). Other writers may wear their heart on their sleeve; Lamott sometimes puts her heart in your face.
At 48, she is riding a big wave as a bestselling author of both memoirs and novels; as the author of the hugely popular how-to book for writers, Bird by Bird; as a columnist for the online magazine Salon, whose first stint Newsweek voted "Best of the Web"; and as a speaker who commands lucrative lecture fees. And who can begrudge her her success? This is a determined woman, after all, who has only built herself up after coming from a long way down.
Indeed, Lamott's life pre-sobriety, pre-motherhood and pre-religion is a checklist of emotional turmoil. Reflecting on her feeling of aloneness during pregnancy in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year (1993), Lamott sums up, "For the last twenty-some years I have tried everything in sometimes suicidally vast quantities--alcohol, drugs, work, food, excitement, good deeds, popularity, men, exercise, and just rampant compulsion and obsession--to avoid having to be in the same room with that sense of total aloneness." Her 20s and early 30s, she says, were "lost and debauched," full of sickness and anxiety; she used to snort cocaine "like an anteater." Add to this list Lamott's upbringing in an unstable bohemian family, a very trying mother, a beloved father who died young, and her rebirth as a devout Christian and loving mom, and you have the terrain of much of her writing.
She grew up in Tiburon, a suburban enclave in Northern California, in a time and place she depicts as Cheever country--a sun-kissed land of parties and cocktails and jazz and affairs. The counterculture arrived in full force, bringing with it considerable quantities of alcohol, drugs and infidelity. Three children Lamott knew well died of drug overdoses.
Her father, Kenneth Lamott, the son of Presbyterian missionaries who raised their children in Japan, was a writer who despised Christianity. He died at age 56 of a brain tumor, and Lamott has written movingly about him in her essay "Dad." Her mother, Dorothy, whom Anne describes as destructively "needy, dependent and angry," eventually divorced Kenneth and began the first women's law firm in Honolulu when she was nearly 50. She died of Alzheimer's disease in 2001. The profound ambivalence Lamott appears to feel about her mother she summed up in Minneapolis this way: "I've spent 16 years in therapy trying to exorcise her . ... I loved her more than life itself."
Young Anne was, she tells her audience, "a terrified little kid." But even as a kid, she was a "movie camera" who noticed a lot and saw plenty. She was very insecure about her looks and her frizzy hair. She won poetry prizes as a young child, did well in school and earned high state rankings as a tennis player from age 10 to 16. Against all odds, given the fashionable atheism of her environment, she clung to a religious faith. She attended Goucher College near Baltimore but dropped out after her sophomore year. "I really had The Bug. I had to write," Lamott says.
Her first novel, Hard Laughter, about a father's battle with brain cancer, was published in 1980, followed by Rosie (1983), a coming-of-age story; Joe Jones (1985), about a group of characters who gather at a cafe; All New People (1989), an unsentimental look at a family over two decades; and Crooked Little Heart (1997), a novel of family and adolescence in which the same Rosie is now 13 and a championship tennis player.
But it has been Lamott's nonfiction books that have proved most popular. Her first was Operating Instructions, a ruthlessly honest diary of her exhausting experience as a first-time mother and her son Sam's first year of life. For Lamott, motherhood came at age 35 and without the help of the father, who bolted after she became pregnant. (He has since become a part of Sam's life.) Operating Instructions was the debut of a vivid new voice in personal narrative--a crabby, funny, irreverent writer with edges and issues who seemed hell-bent on shredding Hallmark-card notions of life and family. If this was a born-again Christian, it wasn't one you had ever run into before. Here's one of Anne's really bad days in the parenting trenches:
"I was just hating Sam there for a while. I'm so ... tired, so burnt beyond recognition that I didn't know how I was going to get through to the morning. The baby was really colicky, kvetching, farting, weeping, and I couldn't get him back to sleep. Then the kitty starts in, choking like mad and barfing for a while and continuing to make retching sounds for a while longer, but curiously enough it all seemed to soothe Sam, who fell back to sleep."
Lamott's next foray into nonfiction, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994), has become a classic amid the mountain of books on writing. In it, she encourages developing writers to stop trying to scale a glacier and work instead from a one-inch picture frame--telling only a one-inch piece of their story at a time. Bird by Bird's devoted fans also know the book's other mantras: Give yourself short assignments and write lousy first drafts.
Lamott's next nonfiction book, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999), an adaptation of her columns for Salon describing her religious odyssey, was also a great success.
Her latest novel is the bestselling Blue Shoe (2002), a tale about a woman, Mattie, trying to keep her life and her children's lives together amid divorce, a mother in failing health, a rotting house and her attraction to a married man. When a little blue shoe is discovered, it functions as both a key to unlocking family secrets and a pass-around symbol.
Lamott discussed the origins of Blue Shoe and much more during an interview in Minneapolis, where she appeared as part of the Pen Pals author-lecture series. More serious in person than she is before audiences and very passionate, she bore down hard on questions and took them for quite a spin.
|You're very frank about all the turmoil you've been through in your life, including alcoholism, drugs, bulimia, family issues. Some of our writing audience might wonder, "If I have not been through all that, where does that leave me? Do I have enough to write about?"|
I think that everybody has, if they've gotten to the age of reading your magazine, survived enough to write about for the rest of their lives. If they've survived childhood, they've got enough to write for the rest of their lives. I mean, the form of people's loss and pain and confusion and struggle has different biographical details, but I think we're all in the same boat.
I happen to have a very addictive personality, but other people have tried to cope in other ways, usually with a lot of mistakes made and a pretty high price paid for whatever wisdom or growth they've managed to eke out. So I don't think you have to have a lot of drama or outward destruction to have a lot to write about if you're trying to tell the truth, whether or not you're making up stories or relying a lot on your own life. But you need to have been paying attention, you need to probably have felt things very deeply. If people are funny and can just tell me stories about life or give me their version of things, and choose their words carefully, I'm in. I'm interested.
Developing writers might also wonder how they could ever be as revealing as Anne Lamott.
Well, there's no reason for other writers to be as "revealing," to use your word, as I have chosen to be. I happen to like really honest writing. I love it when people will tell me the truth and really take the lid off the soup pot and let me peer in. But by the same token, I don't talk about or write about the stuff that's really most intimate to me. The stuff that I talk about with my close friends is really much more intimate.
In Blue Shoe, the little blue shoe and the paint-can opener are neat devices. How did the shoe find its way into the novel?
The blue shoe was a real trinket from about 20 years ago that I found in a gumball machine in Tiburon. I was in my late 20s and I had had a much older friend. I was staying with her for a while and when things got really bad, we would just pass this shoe back and forth. So it had been a really incredibly touching symbol of friendship and of really being there for one another over the course of time.
I had actually started this book that I knew certain things about. I knew that it took place in Marin [Calif.], I knew it took place in the same years that I've taken place, I knew that it involved family secrets, because I grew up in a really great-looking family with a lot of secrets. I met the character of Mattie and I started to meet her children, I met Daniel, and they just sort of came to me in the way that your characters just sort of tug on your sleeve.
I started writing and amassing information, and then I was just taking a walk one day and I thought about this blue shoe, which I still have, this really dumb blue shoe. I thought, that would be a great way to tell the story of a friendship. [The shoe] wasn't the seed of the book, I don't think, because I'd already had a lot of the book in progress by the time I realized it would be a great device.
Did you use the Anne Lamott approach with this novel, following your own advice of terrible first drafts and short assignments?
Yes. I keep a one-inch picture frame on my desk. I can really only see a little bit. I'll get a lot of ideas all at once. I have huge sheets of graph paper on my wall. I scribble notes to myself. I start to kind of mark out sort of a trajectory--I think of the plot as the path of lily pads across the pond--and I'll start to draw big circles from one end of the graph paper, which is most of a wall, to the other. So I'll sort of have a vague sense of how things are going to unfold, but it will just be revealing itself to me little by little. Or I'll just get one good idea. Or I'll be somewhere and I'll see something and realize I really want to write about it. I'll make a note to myself--I always have paper and pencil--and then I'll write about it, really just a one-inch picture frame, and I'll do a really [lousy] job of it. And then I'll move on.
And did you roughly know how this novel was going to end?
No. I had no idea.
Did the plot of Blue Shoe grow out of your characters, as you put it in Bird by Bird?
Yeah. It's also sort of peeling away the onion skin of the characters. I didn't know the details of Mattie's life when I started. I knew that her world was up in flames, and it's autumn outside and the trees look like flames. I wanted everything that could be taken away from her to pretty much have been taken away, so that she has given up her husband, she's broke, her mother has just moved out of this house where she grew up. So she moves into the house and what you find is that everything about the house has been designed to cover up the rot and the mildew and the holes and the problems and the family's very poor solutions to its very human and universal problems. I just sort of knew who some of the people were, I knew enough about them to go on. I just took it one day at a time, and screwed up, you know. I believe in a lot of mistakes and false starts and messes.
This is your sixth novel. Has it gotten any easier?
I'm not sure it's easier. I think, like a pianist or something, you just definitely get better if you do it day after day and year after year. And I'm better at editing; I'm more willing to take stuff out now, and that's helpful. I finally got to the point where I asked somebody to do a real intense edit for me who wasn't my editor, because the world of New York publishing has changed so much and editors can't really edit the way they did even 10 or 15 years ago. So I had a friend doing really hands-on editing with me, really week-to-week work with me, and that made a huge difference.
But it doesn't get easier for me. I don't really enjoy it all that much. I would much rather watch CNN, or I hike almost every day up on the mountain where I live. I'd rather do almost anything than write. I really love the third and fourth drafts. The first and second drafts are what I don't like. I don't have the kind of confidence you might assume [after this many books]. The difference between me and a lot of people who would want to write is that I do it anyway. I do it with fear and loathing and trembling and a lot of really bad thoughts about how it's going to be received.
I have to ask you about the essay about your mother in Traveling Mercies. In fact, the back-to-back punch of the essays on your mother and father just leaped out at me. Was it painful to write?
It was painful to have my mother for a mother. It was really so excruciating to have such a needy, dependent and angry mother that to write about it wasn't painful so much as it was so risky because she was still alive. I think I was probably 45 or 44 when I wrote it. I'd spent all of those years not writing about her because I was so desperate to make her happy, and to kind of rewrite history, which is why so many of my students have felt so stuck and voiceless, because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. They had mothers or fathers who held their hands over flame to punish them; they had mothers and fathers who very, very routinely sent them out to the yard to select the switch with which they were then going to be hit--and they don't want to hurt these people's feelings.
So with my mom, who didn't do anything overtly violent but had a very, very destructive effect on my soul and my sense of self, I had always either not written about her or made the mother [in my fiction] so, so different. Or I'd sugarcoated it, like in Operating Instructions, so as to make my mom happy. And I finally got too tired--it wasn't making her happy, it was giving her a little hit. The hit was that we were all keeping the secret. And I finally decided I wasn't going to do it.
I didn't know how long she was going to live, and as it turns out, she died [in 2001]. And it was painful, because she read it and it hurt her, but I think a great deal more good came out of it, certainly for me as the daughter, and for all the daughters and many, many mothers out there. And my mother and I went through a bad patch for about a week and then it was, you know, good that I had written it, because it's good--it's a miracle, it's a miracle, for an old, black-belt codependent like me to tell the truth. ... And I think if you read the piece again, you would find that there's so much more love than you notice the first time, kind of radiant with tenderness. But it was hurtful, and I'd do it again in a hot second.
|How many hours do you work in a day?|
I work about four a day now. Before I had a kid, I obviously worked a lot more, and a lot more efficiently. I get to work at about 9 in the morning and most days I set aside four hours, which is to say I get about three hours of work done. But in a different way I'm working a lot of the time, and I've got notes with me and paper with me and notebooks with me and I print out all the time. And so I'm always reading it later, and I might just stretch out on the couch with that day's work later and think about it or grab just a chunk of material and see how it's holding together. Like a random urinalysis, you know--just grab 50 pages and start reading and see, without preparing myself, if it reads fairly fluidly.
Your nonfiction is written in a very conversational style.
That's the illusion. I write three and four and five drafts of everything. Most of the pieces in Traveling Mercies and many of the little pieces and bits in Blue Shoe were written at Salon, which has been a really great vehicle for me, because I'm comfortable writing five or six pages. So by the time I started putting them together for Traveling Mercies, for instance, I'd already written them three and four times for Salon. But then when I went to put it into the book, it still needed more rewriting, editing, taking stuff out, not agreeing with my editor about what should go in, what should stay, and a whole other rewrite. So if it comes out very conversational and fluid, it's because I've done it so many times.
Spirituality is a very big part of who you are and a big part of your writing, and you also don't pull any punches in the area of politics. Do you give any consideration to turning off some percentage of your readers?
No. I just can't think that way, or I'm going to start editing and censoring myself. I mean, I'm just a hard-core, born-to-die, left-wing activist, and I was raised by left-wing activists. I [actually] take out most of the diatribes, [but] I insist on the right to be who I am.
I think maybe the more interesting question is about religion and being a Christian. This friend Doug, who edited Blue Shoe for me, said, "A whole lot of people are gonna be turned off by the fact that Mattie is a Christian and that she is a believer and that when she's struggling, she prays, and when she's happy, she prays, and that she thinks in terms of her spiritual identity."
But I thought about it, because, God knows, I want people to read me. But most of the books I read don't even mention God or spirit or soul, but yet they're very, very much about soul and spirit. But they're mostly by other left-wing intellectuals, by well-known popular and sometimes slightly more esoteric writers. I read them, even though they don't talk about God and spirit, because they're great storytellers, and because I love how painstaking with language they are, and I don't hold it against them. So I thought, why am I going to censor myself so that I don't alienate people who don't care about God, since I read all their stuff when they don't write about the stuff I'm most passionate about? So I just can't think that way, I can't censor myself.
I think a lot more people care about God and goodness and good orderly direction--which is an acronym for God--and faith and soul and spirit than you would think. I mean, Traveling Mercies sold hundreds and hundreds of thousands of copies. The thing is, I'm not evangelical, I'm not trying to convert anyone. What I'm trying to do is sort of witness to the fact that I'm alive and I can just feel the miracle of my life.
In recent years, there's been a tide of memoir writing, which has taken some critical hits. There are certainly some potential pitfalls to this genre. Some writers might wonder, "How do I make my life interesting? And what makes my own life interesting anyway?"
Well, on the one hand, I think you probably shouldn't be reading the critics, because so many of them are just really angry, jealous people who haven't made it as writers. On the other hand, I think it's the pitfall of all writing. I love memoirs, and I just love personal essays--really, it's my favorite form of literature. I think you probably need somebody to work with [a reader] who can be strict but also very, very loving. I don't think writing about "me" or thinking about "me" or talking about "me-me-me" is the problem. I think bad writing is the problem, and going on way too long about stuff that should maybe just be a sentence or a paragraph instead of a whole chapter or passage.
I don't think there's anything more interesting than one human telling the truth in the clearest, truest possible way. If somebody has a sense of humor, it's so fantastic. Everybody has been through something that no one else has seen, and he or she alone can be the tour guide for that time, that place, that house and that role in the family--I think it's all just inherently interesting.
You write a terrible draft, you get it all down. Like in Bird by Bird, it talks about the down draft. The first draft is the down draft--you just get it all down. The second draft is the up draft, and you clean it all up. The third draft is the dental draft. You go paragraph by paragraph and you jiggle each section, each tooth, and you floss. You see what's healthy and strong. You see if the gums are good and holding on and you see what needs to be pulled. You see what needs to be cleaned up. But it's OK to have people help you.
Anyone who has done any freelancing and reads Operating Instructions knows it was a tough road for you.
I didn't make more than $10,000 a year until the early '90s. I was always willing to be broke. I was always willing to make just enough money. I had half-time jobs. Operating Instructions came out in '93 and I made in the very low five figures and I didn't have any money, I didn't have any savings, I didn't have a car that worked with any efficiency. But I got to be a writer when I grew up. And so, it's only been the last five or six years that I've been making a really good living at it.
But I always just wanted to write and I thought, God, what a great gift to give your kid, to just say, "The money's not going to buy you much of anything that's going to hold up over time, and we're going to get by." It's pretty hard to feel any kind of self-pity when you get to be an artist, when you get to live out your artistic dream. You just don't care. I mean, I worked four hours a day making a living doing something, and I worked on my books four hours a day, you know, and I brought my kid to readings. I taught writing classes and I took my kid to these classes in a playpen with a big bag of Legos. We have just gotten my writing life to happen, because I wanted it so badly. #
Ronald Kovach is senior editor of The Writer.
--Posted March 3, 2003