Praise for Anne Lamott

Praise: n. an expression of approval; commendation.

Yesterday I picked up Anne Lamott’s latest book, Grace (Eventually).These impoverished days I usually borrow my reading material from the library. Anne Lamott I buy. And once again I’m just enthralled.

Back in 1985 (?) she spoke at the first writer’s conference I ever attended. Using tales from her own writing life (and very messy personal life) she simultaneously inspired and convulsed us with laughter. I remember thinking, “Wow, if someone with this many hang-ups and problems can crank out books, what’s keeping me?”

Although she has written five novels, her true métier is the personal essay. I would KILL to be as inspiring, evocative and funny as Annie Lamott.

So far she’s produced three best-selling collections of personal essays: Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and this latest one.The subject matter evolves but doesn’t change: she weaves together her experiences as a (former) drunk, as a sober person, as an imperfect single mom, as a loving but jealous friend, as a dutiful and rebellious daughter, as an insecure writer, and as a born-again Christian who is simultaneously a flaming liberal feminist who curses and hates George Bush even more than I do.

One moment the reader is horrified: “she did what?”, the next all teary, and then you’re laughing your head off. Most of her tales have a gentle moral lesson lurking behind the breezy writing style, and yet this non-Christian reader is pulled in rather than repelled. For someone as devout as she clearly is, she has no qualms about being wicked and totally irreverent.

She also wrote one of my all-time favorite books about writing: Bird by Bird (1995). We learn that her style, which seems so effortless, is not. Here’s a piece of excellent advice:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

[Amen sister! And how about really really shitty second third and fourth drafts?]

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out, and let it romp all over the place…you let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come though and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her….

She goes on to describe the battle she has with her internal editors:

The critics would be sitting on my shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters. They’d pretend to snore, or roll their eyes at my overwrought descriptions… For the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot…

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?.. and there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion, and there’s William Burroughs dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant, and so on…

She suggests a process where you imagine shrinking each of these complainers to the size of a mouse and dropping them one by one into a jar with a lid on it to have at each other.

A writer friend of mine suggests opening the jar and shooting them all in the head. But I think he’s a little angry, and I’m sure nothing like this would ever occur to you.

No. Of course not.

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4 responses to “Praise for Anne Lamott

  1. I picked up “Bird by Bird” when it was first published and take it out from time to time as a reference. Now it’s time to reread before I give another go at doing that promised autobiography. My next birthday marks a milestone that says I’ve lived longer than most of the people in my family. Now I’m beginning to believe that if I don’t get to it, I’ll have waited too long. My life story probably isn’t of much importance to anyone but me, but I do seem to have this overpowering urge to ‘get it on paper’. I’ve lived in very interesting times and those times seem to be about to repeat themselves. One can hope that Pres. Obama can not only take a page from FDR’s book, but have a better go at economic recovery without WW3. Wars are good times for industry and the economy, but I’m hoping we can work together without that added risk to life and limb to the entire world. Keep on keeping on. MES

  2. Mary, have at it! When, if not now? There are a bunch of good books out there on writing memoir – Judith Barrington has written one, also Abigail Thomas (daughter of physician Lewis Thomas, one of the most elegant memoirists ever).

    It may be easier to start in the middle with some turning point event than at the beginning…”I was born in a shack…”

    Let me know how it goes!

  3. dean yamamoto

    OMG! i do love these excerpts, joy. and your little comments between too. love that you pass on to mary a suggestion fr our writing mentor too, yes, starting somewhere other than the beginning… and mary, this is my beginning to seek out kindred souls on a writing pilgrimage. feels good to find a fellow sojourner.
    love lamott’s little tidbit of getting a wild & free flowing 1st draft.. AND love her fear of others seeing it too. what ARE we afraid of. i love that i live w/ a 9yr old and what i am learning fr her montessori teacher, “Oh, honey, your picture is so, so, BLUE!” yeah for the non-critic!!! and yeah for the bottle of critic mice!!!

  4. Dean – I love the Montessori teacher’s remark! Once again it reminds me of that terrific story of the little girl starting to draw by making a dot and the teacher making sure she signed it.