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Finding a way, with words

15 August 2014

The writer Anne Lamott appears for the first time at the Greenbelt Festival next week. Her confessional books interweave faith, literature, pain, and humour. She talks to Jo Browning Wroe

NEARLY 20 years ago, I was given a book by an American friend. It is a book about writing, unlike any other I've come across. It offered good sense about the craft:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. 

Very few writers really know what they're doing until they've done it.

Good writing is about telling the truth. 

But it was also about much more than that: 

You can't get to any of these truths by sitting in a field beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. 

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.

Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.

And it was funny: 

I worry that Jesus drinks himself to sleep when he hears me talk like this.

Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper-train. You don't drop-kick a puppy into the neighbour's yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.

This unusual blend of advice on both how to write, and how to live, is called Bird by Bird: Some instructions on writing and life. Its author is Anne Lamott.

In a career spanning more than 30 years, Lamott has written seven novels, and eight works of non-fiction. No stranger to the New York Times bestseller list, she is also the subject of Freida Lee Mock's documentary, Bird by Bird with Annie: A film portrait of writer Anne Lamott.

A RECURRING theme throughout Lamott's work is that of "paying attention". When we do this, she believes, the interwoven quality of everything becomes evident, which explains the unusual approach she took with her book about writing.

"Yes, I am interested in faith above all else; so if I wrote about car maintenance, it would be like all my other non-fiction. I can bring my lecture notes on faith to a writing talk, and be fine, and vice versa.

"It's all the same concepts, short assignments, i.e.: bird by bird; terrible first drafts; ask friends for help and feedback; don't give up ever; keep showing up; be willing to look bad; seek wise counsel; write down the stuff you overhear; intuit; remember; dream; suddenly understand - these are the coins of the realm for writers and seekers."

She believes that our search for meaning will involve whatever it is that we love; that our passions somehow connect us to something greater. Being raised in a family in which literature was highly valued not only turned Lamott towards a writing life, but has been foundational in her own search for meaning.

"I grew up where all five of us read constantly. Reading, and libraries, and book stores, and erudition defined us. I was saved by chapter [story] books, at five years old, in the religious sense of salvation: given life, purpose, meaning, and a direction to which to turn for light."

Even if she had not ended up as a writer, "I would definitely have been a teacher or a professor. No matter what, I would have built a rich, wild, creative, exhilarating, and probably hard life around the papery realms."

INEVITABLY, it was not only the positive aspects of her family life that shaped her as a writer: "My parents had such an unhappy marriage that the three of us kids felt constant tension and polite unhappiness. I really adored my father, more than life, but he didn't love my mother; so I didn't have a healthy sense of self-esteem from my mother.

"I grew up with a daddy who was at his desk by 5.30 every morning, rain, shine, hangover, colds. . . He taught me the habit of writing: that you just show up and do that day's work.

"I felt tremendous pressure to achieve in school, and skipped a grade at eight, and never recovered socially, as I was also very small for my size then, and had this crazy hair.

"My father did drink a lot, but was always very together, and there was no yelling at our house. We were too well-behaved, and sophisticated, in a bohemian, left-wing way. So I was never allowed to have angry feelings, which all kids and human would have, if they were paying attention. So a lot got stuffed and repressed, which is common to almost all writers."

When her father was diagnosed with brain cancer, Lamott responded by writing what was to be her first published novel, Hard Laughter. Thirty-four years and seven novels later, Lamott suspects that she won't undertake another novel; but, nevertheless, fiction was her first love, she says.

"Novels are how we get so beautifully lost in other worlds, painstakingly created by rich minds' imaginations, that can capture truth and humanity by taking us deeply, intimately, into human hearts and lives. And, in getting lost in these creations, dropping down into, rising up into other worlds, we get found.

"Novels are magic to me, like friends telling me the most profound and entertaining stories, where autobiography meets the mystical realms, and sleight of hand."

THE success of her non-fiction work is probably due to the same thing - her ability to lean in and tell the reader her intimate life-stories. A recovering alcoholic, dry for 28 years, her attempts to navigate through life's injustices and cruelties come from her own loss and despair rather than from a platitudinous height.

They appreciate her directness when she says to God: "Would it have been so much skin off your teeth to cut us some slack here?" Or, "Why couldn't Jesus command us to obsess over everything, to try to control and manipulate people, to try not to breathe at all, or to pay attention, stomp away to brood when people annoy us, and then eat a big bag of Hershey's Kisses in bed?"

And they follow her attempts to explain a mass shooting to her Sunday-school class, because, well, what do you say in the face of that?

She has written about life as a single mother during her son's first year, in Operating Instructions; and, years later, in Some Assembly Required, she writes about her son's first son. She has also written three collections of autobiographical essays on faith: Traveling Mercies: Some thoughts on faith; Plan B: Further thoughts on faith; and Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on faith; and a book on the three essential prayers, Help, Thanks, Wow.

I wonder if her friends get a little anxious when they know she is writing a new book, as her life never reads as a solo enterprise. Her pages are densely populated by those who have sustained, inspired, and annoyed her. It is as though everything she has learned about life she has learned from journeying with those around her.

Lamott grew wise to the power of friendship to help her find her place in the bigger scheme of things, early in her life. "I always had the most miraculous girlfriends, and then women friends, and I learned that if I told them my truth, it would be similar to theirs. And we would both be free.

"The women's movement, late '60s and early '70s, gave me life and hope. I was 16 in 1970 or so, when the first issue of Ms magazine came out; and I knew then I was going to be OK. That there was a niche for me in the world, among these brilliant soulful, truth-telling hilarious women."

THERE is another dimension to the peopled quality of her work - overt, in her non-fiction; and covert, in her fiction: her beloved writers, including Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Sharon Olds, Rumi, Raymond Carver, and D. H. Lawrence. If asked to pick, could she name a favourite?

"I love Middlemarch more than any other novel. I think it is perfect: so rich in human truth, and history; so modern, even though it's about 150 years old, so entertaining, and so elegant and down-to-earth at the same time.

"C. S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner are my theological guys. They are truly my mentors. Equally great spiritual thinkers and writers. Their books stopped me in my tracks, and continue to do so. Those stunning biblical insights, coupled with the sharpest possible wit and humanity. Wow."

Her latest work, Stitches: A handbook on meaning, hope and repair, was, like her first novel, written in response to a painful situation. "Stitches very much arose from the mass slaughter at Sandy Hook School, where 20 little kids were killed, along with six heroic teachers, the shooter, and his mother.

"I always told my writing students to write what they'd love to come upon, and, after the shootings in Newtown, I would have loved to come upon a book by someone with a sense of humour, on where we find meaning after tragedy, both private and global. Where is meaning in this tech-crazy, speed freak, supersonic, devastating new world? Well, I decided to write that book, and Stitches was born."

And there is more to come. A collection of new and selected pieces is to be published this November, Small Victories: Spotting improbable moments of grace. But, first, she can be seen and heard this August Bank Holiday, in a field in Northamptonshire.

Stitches: A handbook on meaning, hope and repair by Anne Lamott is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69).

The Greenbelt Festival, which is sponsored by the Church Times, takes place from 22 to 25 August at Boughton House, Kettering. www.greenbelt.org.uk.

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