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
But it was also about much more than
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
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
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
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
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.