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Word by Word with Anne Lamott

"I've heard someone say that our problems aren't the problem; it's our solutions that are the problem," Anne Lamott reflects. "That tends to be one thing that goes wrong for me—my solutions."

Anne Lamott Lamott's readers will attest that she writes cleaner than she's lived. Her younger, occasionally reckless years are documented at length in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year (one of very few end-of-the-century works included on the Modern Library's list of the 1900s best nonfiction) and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.

In both her novels and nonfiction, Lamott has an uncanny knack for breaking down complicated issues with common (albeit quirky) sense. Problems don't disappear; they just become infinitely more manageable in the light. She's obsessively honest—a woman of ethics, fruitfully faulted. The San Francisco Chronicle points out, "Anne Lamott is walking proof that a person can be both reverent and irreverent in the same lifetime. Sometimes even in the same breath."

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life so thoroughly mixes the one with the other that you forget how they ever seemed distinct. For my money it's the best guide to writing around. Blue Shoe, her sixth novel, speaks to readers with the compassion, humor, and resiliency they've come to expect—and maybe an extra dollop of wisdom since last time, thanks to more living.

She has earned the devotion of a cult following: Lamottites. Together, they recite:

Thanks, Anne,
for that. Right.
No, it makes total sense when
you put it that way,
I know what you mean exactly.

Dave: A few days ago I lent Operating Instructions to a friend at home with her seven-month-old son. As you can see, it fell into the bathwater. She was very embarrassed, returning it in this condition, but she loved the book.

Anne Lamott: I actually get a lot of those, the book returned after it's been in the bathtub. They're all about an inch taller by then.

Dave: She read the whole book in one night. What she most appreciated, she said, was having another woman express some of the less dignified thoughts in her head. For example, you write, "One of the worst things about being a parent, for me, is the self-discovery, the being face to face with one's secret insanity and brokenness and rage." I think it was that degree of honesty that drove her to read the book straight through, and I imagine that must be part of what drove you to write it.

Lamott: What drove me to write it was a desire to record my son's life. It was the first year, and it was just so amazing to have this little unit around. A surprise at every turn.

Also, I couldn't find books to help me because the ones I found weren't about being honest or dishonest; they were helpful, but they just offered solutions to calm the baby or help the baby get to sleep. No one talked about the exhaustion and the boredom and the frustration, how defeating it is but also how funny —it struck me as being funny at the same time. I would have loved to find a book like that, so I wrote one.

Dave: In Traveling Mercies, you share your private—and often unconventional—ideas about faith. Was the motivation similar?

Lamott: I was writing pieces at Salon.com; that's where I try out most of my material. The pieces tend to be about faith. They tend to be spiritual, but they're about very, very ordinary life. I was gathering them together, and I realized pretty soon I had a book there.

It was a really inoffensive way to write about spiritual stuff, from the point of view of somebody who doesn't have a clue but who knows that if I pray my prayers are answered and who knows there's a lot of help out there in the world for me. There just is. There's a huge amount of love and support: people making me laugh about my drama, people that will listen. I guess it's the missionary thing inside me. I wanted to carry the message that there's a solution.

I've heard someone say that our problems aren't the problem; it's our solutions that are the problem. That tends to be one thing that goes wrong for me: my solutions. That's what I tend to write about spiritually in both of those books.

Dave: I wrote down a line from Operating Instructions that seemed to be entirely representative of your perspective. Upon considering how much you suddenly stood to lose, now that you had a son to lose, you wrote, "Now I'm fucked unto the Lord."

Lamott: I think I've said that in all my books. My last few, anyway.

Dave: So many assumptions about what it means to be a Christian in America in 2003, you just turn them inside out. You don't argue, exactly; that's not your approach. But you mentioned "the missionary thing" a minute ago, and this recasting of traditional spirituality would seem to be part of your mission: to make room for a different kind of faith.

Lamott: My sense of mission has to do with having one or two things that I can offer a world that seems as needy and hungry as I sometimes feel. Sometimes it's about writing, if it's Bird by Bird, and sometimes it's about just trying to help other parents know that we're all in the same boat.

There's that terrible feeling of isolation when things are going badly as a parent. Or in the case of Blue Shoe (which is about a woman who is a Christian in the same way I am; that is to say, she has a colorful way of expressing herself), Mattie has a mother with Alzheimer's, but Mattie also has two little kids. I have information about being able to survive in that position: being a mother to some children and being the daughter of a parent who really didn't effectively parent you at all, who you are still mad at; and at the same time trying to live on a spiritual path of loving kindness.

I feel a mission to write about the real stuff, the stuff that people and I talk about when we're finally getting down to business, when we're not just socializing.

Dave: Do you encounter much resistance from Christians with more conservative views?

Lamott: Mostly people that are strict, right-wing Christians know not to read me. Most of the people that are aware of my books know that I'm going to be approaching God from a different angle than, say, Pat Robertson is. If I'm on the radio, if I'm on a Christian station especially, but not even necessarily, sometimes just on any old station, fundamentalists will call in and just try to expose all the errors in my thinking and in my faith, which you really can't do.

Some people are horrified that I have such an accepting sense of Jesus: that He would accept someone like me, who talks like me, that He would love and accept everybody bar no one. My politics tend to be those of a progressive with certain radical leanings. I come to my Christianity from that point of view. The character in Blue Shoe, her mother is an old-time left-wing activist, and is kind of horrified by her daughter's Christianity—more actively so than my own mother was. My mother, I think she just rolled her eyes about it and thought of it as my little blind spot. Mattie's family thinks her Christianity is just a phase and that it will pass. So I guess I get that to some extent.

I don't try to convert anyone. I don't think it's my business, and I don't think I would be able to do that anyway. I just want to tell people what it's like for me and what a wreck I was and how much less of a wreck I am now that I've found a spiritual community. Sometimes I tell it in drama, in fiction, and sometimes I just tell stories from my own life.

Dave: There's a scene in one of the books where you're talking with your therapist, drawing meaning from various knickknacks on the shelves. Rereading that, I thought of the blue shoe in this new novel: an otherwise insignificant item that takes on a great deal of meaning. And there really was a blue shoe in your life, right?

Lamott: There was. Almost twenty years ago, I was living in Petaluma and I split up with this man I'd been living with. I told a friend in the town where I grew up that I needed to come stay with her for two weeks. I stayed forever, but we were walking into town one day, I was very depressed, and I just put a quarter in a gumball machine because I was bored. This stupid little turquoise rubber shoe came out. And I just loved it. I could wrap my fingers around it? It tethered me to the earth or something. It felt like I was holding hands with someone, or something like that. Pat, whom I was staying with, would make fun of me, but I couldn't put it down.

When her situation changed in life and things got hard for her, one morning I left the blue shoe for her to have with a little note that said I would walk her through these challenges; she didn't have to worry, but I thought she needed the blue shoe. And she couldn't put it down. It was so nutty. She was very fancy and much older than I was, and yet the same thing happened for her: Once she held it, she couldn't put it down. Six months later things changed in my life and she gave it back to me. We did this back-and-forth for years.

It struck me as being a really nice and unusual way to tell the story of best friends over time. Mattie is obviously in love with this man, and he's just a wonderful guy, but he's married. It's about five years in their life with the blue shoe being exchanged back and forth.

Dave: Most fiction writers haven't put their own story out there in such detail. Because people know so much about you, is it more difficult to write fiction?

Lamott: People think they know so much about me. The stuff that I choose to write about in my books is stuff I'm comfortable with. It's not secret stuff anymore. I tell the people I'm closest to what's really going on in my deepest parts. By the time I share stuff, whether it's in fiction or nonfiction, I don't have any worry about it at all.

There's nothing in Traveling Mercies or Operating Instructions or Bird by Bird that I think is shocking. In Blue Shoe, Mattie is obviously very much based on me, not the facts of her life, but her emotional and spiritual and political life. Because it's fiction, I could have her do stuff or think stuff I'd only have said to a couple people.

I'm exhilarated by the truth. If somebody writes a book that is incredibly honest, even what people would call confessional, I'm just exhilarated by it.

Dave: When you're struggling to get words on the page, would you say that it's because you're not connecting to that truth?

Lamott: I think writing is just really hard. I don't deconstruct it, and I don't have any interesting theories about it. I really don't. I just think it's hard. Blue Shoe is my ninth book, and it was just as hard as any of the others. I don't have that much more confidence than I ever had. It doesn't matter how they do. It's such a lonely, odd business.

Most writers I know have a combination of self-loathing and great narcissism. It's very easy to think that everything you've thought or done or heard is really interesting, and it's obviously not. Everything I write, I write many drafts of. Even a Salon piece probably takes five drafts to make it sound natural. Then people say, "Oh, you write just like you talk." But it took me five drafts to get it to sound that way.

I write terrible first drafts. I don't think about things like narrative drive or structure or whatever, and it probably shows; that's probably what my critics would say. But the first draft is so intuitive. It's about flailing, but the characters know what happens to them and what they're about, what the interesting part of their story really is. If I pay attention to getting to know them along the way, little by little they help me get to it.

Dave: You offer a great example of that method in Bird by Bird in the passage that begins by talking about school lunches and soon enough works its way to the real subject, a lone boy standing in front of a fence. That boy wasn't your conscious subject at all when you sat down to write.

Do similar moments come to mind in the composition of Blue Shoe?

Lamott: There are so many passages in Blue Shoe that I thought were about one thing—I tried to capture them, but they were like little Möbius strips; I'd be writing a little passage and it would loop back over itself. It would turn out that where we were going to go together, it and me, was as much of a surprise as that section in Bird by Bird about the school lunches.

Dave: While we're on the subject of school lunches, why do kids prefer grape jelly?

Lamott: Grape jelly has no texture. It has no resistance. It has no seeds. It makes absolutely no attempt to appeal to adults. It's like candy jelly. Most other jams and jellies, adults might eat—even strawberry jam, which is the second best one. I love raspberry jam, but, see, those are adult things; there are seeds. Grape jelly is Jell-O filled with sugar that you put on bread. And it's purple. What's not to like? Plus, the adults don't want it. It's yours.

Dave: A few weeks ago, you republished Joe Jones. So many writers are reluctant to revisit their old work; they just don't want to face it. What made you do that?

Lamott: I wrote the novel, my third novel, after Hard Laughter and Rosie, in the last few years of my drinking. It came out in 1985; I got sober in 1986.

It was just so critically trashed. It was such a disaster. I went from Hard Laughter, which is so autobiographical, to Rosie, which was a much better written book. It was third person. It was more like a real book. I think people thought there would be a natural trajectory and the next book would be better than Rosie, that it would show more skill and more evolution of my voice, but it was just a mess in a lot of ways. First of all, it was in the present tense, which I don't like in novels usually. And it had people speaking all the time, people who worked at this broken-down dive of a restaurant, who wouldn't have mattered to anyone else on earth. I did the best I could with these characters that I absolutely loved, and it was just a disaster. People basically pretended it hadn't even been published, even at the time. Then over the years it was like a kid I'd had who wasn't invited to the table.

Meanwhile, my editor, Jack Shoemaker from North Pointe—he published Joe Jones, then All New People, which was my first sober book and which did really well; then he published Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird—well, he had gone on to a new house that he'd formed, and he'd always loved this book. There was always a group of people that loved Joe Jones, including my therapist, which is funny, I think, and kind of a small cult following that would come to readings. The book is very primitive. There's a kind of wolfishness about it. Something in it touched them in a way that better writing didn't. They loved the characters, which I always did too. But, you know, I'd never read it sober.

When Jack really started pushing me to reissue it, I was very nervous because I believed what all the reviews had said, and what I'd come to believe was that it was a failure about people I liked. I had to read it for the first time, and I was simultaneously horrified and falling in love. Jack said that he thought I should go ahead and change anything I wanted, but I didn't want to rewrite it or do another draft. Jack's wife, the great novelist Jane Vandenburgh, who wrote Failure to Zigzag and The Physics of Sunset, has always loved that book. She went through it with me. With the lightest possible touch, we jiggled here and snipped there and just made things a little clearer. It's probably about five percent words that are changed. Then my boyfriend made a beautiful cover for it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

I'm glad it's at the table again. I don't convert people and I don't insist they read anything I wrote, but it's there. People have often asked at readings, "Where can I get Joe Jones?" It was out-of-print so long. Now I can say that it's probably in the store.

Dave: As a native of the Bay area, what do you make of the Giants and A's being in the playoffs?

Lamott: It's great. I'm so stoked. I love the Giants. I love the A's —I think you can't live in the Bay area and not love the A's, so I think it's great—but I want the Giants to win. I'm a Giants girl. Some of my first memories are being in the kitchen in our old house, coming in with my older brother and my Mom sitting by the radio. Willie Mays would be up. God, it was just so exciting. It's in my DNA to be a Giants fan, but I do love the A's. If it were just the A's, I'd be passionately for them.

Dave: People coming to your books nowadays or to your Salon columns probably wouldn't guess that as a teenager you were part of the top-ranked doubles tennis team in Northern California.

Lamott: I was a real player.

Dave: At what age did you begin playing?

Lamott: Very young. I think I started playing at our tennis club, the rec center in town, at about nine. I took some lessons, but it caught on immediately. I was very athletic. I had a flare for it. I would never get off the courts after that. I started playing tournaments when I was ten. Then I played twelve-and-under all the way through sixteen-and-under, and I think we were ranked number one a lot of those years.

I was always better at doubles than singles. I've always liked doing frightening things with other people.

Dave: Is Sam an athlete?

Lamott: He's not an organized athlete, but he's extremely athletic and wiry. He has the same athletic gift that I did, which is that we were both wiry and tensile and strong. I was very thin; he's very thin.

He's wrestling right now, which is perfect because he's really cagey. He plays tennis, but I erred on the side of not getting him involved in competitive sports. They play soccer at school, but I never encouraged it.

Dave: Through their younger years, Calvin Trillin often wrote about his kids. Around the time they reached middle school, he stopped. He decided not to write about them again at least until they were through their teens. Those years, he figured, are too difficult without being the subject of your father's humor columns. Do you feel the same way?

Lamott: I do. I've written a few pieces about Sam at Salon, but we've had the discussion and he really doesn't want to be written about. But he also said I could publish all those older pieces; I'll be putting them together in another kind of Traveling Mercies. But I won't be writing about him. People say, "Write an Operating Instructions for teenagers," but I agree with Calvin Trillin.

Dave: Read any good books lately?

Lamott: I loved the Paul Theroux book, Dark Star Safari, about his walk from Cairo to Capetown. And I loved the new T. C. Boyle novel, Drop City. Those are my two favorites lately.

Dave: Are you working on more fiction now?

Lamott: No, I'm just doing Salon. I'm doing these spiritual pieces and a lot of political activism. I got arrested a lot in the spring, protesting the war, and I'm registering voters now, first for the gubernatorial election that we're having soon, but I'll keep doing it through the Presidential election.

I can't do both at once, fiction and the other. Whenever I've quit Salon, it's because I can't do both at once. A novel takes ferocious concentration. It's a very jealous mistress; it doesn't give me permission to be writing. I have two thousand words due every two weeks at Salon, and each piece takes a full week. So that's what I'm doing: trying to bring down this government and bring another collection together.

Dave: Well, let's pretend for the sake of argument that we get a government you can live with...

Lamott: I think we will.

Dave: But it's interesting to gauge public sentiment in different parts of the country. For instance, in Portland, where Ralph Nader collected more votes than anywhere else, we're definitely not representative of the mainstream. It's easy to forget that if you don't get out of town. When I went to the Midwest in April, it was such an eye-opening experience to see all those Bush bumper stickers and signs on front lawns. Then just a few weeks ago I was in New York City visiting a friend who didn't think the economy seemed so bad. He's a teacher, so he doesn't make a ton of money, but he gets by and he likes the work.

People are always complaining that TV and mass media are washing out the regional differences in America, but we're still creatures of our immediate surroundings. When you travel, how much do you see on the road?

Lamott: Well, I'll go to Portland and Seattle, and I'll be in Boulder tomorrow—they're all liberal cities. I went to New York, Washington: liberal cities. And the people come to see me sure are. I'm in Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison—they're all liberal, union cities. I mean, I guess Milwaukee is sort of northern heartland, but I wasn't really in the heartland. Iowa, that's about it. I don't travel much for my tours anymore because I really just want to be at home.

Dave: If you had another existence, if you had more time, is there something out there...

Lamott: If I had more time, it would be a nightmare for me. I don't want more time. I have the right amount of time. I err on the side of sloth. I'm ferocious about protecting my time.

I spend almost all my time alone. I see my son a lot, of course; I see my boyfriend; and I'm very involved in my church; but I spend about eighty percent of every day alone. I have a very domestic life. I have a house to keep together, and a one-year-old dog, and a cat. And I'm tired. I'm almost fifty, and I'm not a good sleeper. I take a little nap every afternoon. I believe that sleep and rest and self-care are radical acts. So I'm not racing around trying to get Sam from one lesson to another; no, I'm actually ferocious about this. I don't need more time.

I've written a lot about the fact that I find life exhausting and confusing; a lot of the time, I feel wonder and fascination—things are sort of funny and sweet—but a lot of the time they're just harder than anyone could have ever imagined. It's been excruciating for me to be living under George Bush and to watch this world—and my son's world—be devastated in the way that it has under his rule. I do what I can do. I spend a couple hours a week registering people. But I seize whatever time I can and I commit it to doing nothing. There's nothing else I'm good at. There's nothing else I want to do. I do a lot of missionary work, in the Christian sense: I visit sick people and I am on the phone with people, I send out a lot of cards. I pray. I just find the days are pretty long as they are. I'm glad when the light goes down.

Dave: Where do you get your news?

Lamott: I read Salon every day. It's thirty-five dollars a year for a subscription. You can read the beginnings of every article there for free, but to read them whole you have to subscribe. I'm not just making a plug for it; I actually find great writing there. Jake Tapper and Joe Conason, and Arianna was there until she entered the gubernatorial race. And Joan Walsh. So many people I trust. I love the liberal columnists in the New York Times. I turn to them. I read the Washington Post online a lot of nights; it's gotten so good in the last six months. It's just really happening. I read The Nation.

I talk to my friends a lot. We're in constant communication about what's going on and what it means and where we should lean a little harder, where we should send our money. I send money to a lot of candidates because at this point I don't know who I'm going to vote for. I send money to Ms. Barbara Lee, who does speak for me; she's the radical Oakland congresswoman who was the only person not to sign the War Powers Act after 9/11. And I love the Chronicle; it's sort of like the nice little aunt I've gotten used to over the years. Some of the writing in there is pretty good; Jon Carroll is fantastic.

Anne Lamott visited Powell's City of Books on September 26, 2003.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Rosie
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  2. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
    Used Hardcover $5.95
  3. Joe Jones
    Used Trade Paper $2.95
  4. Operating Instructions: A Journal of...
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  5. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  6. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on...
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  7. Blue Shoe Used Trade Paper $2.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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