Love Letters: Anne Lamott

Photo above of Anne Lamott, taken by James Hall, borrowed from here

When you do something as tragic and embarrassing and sickeningly self-important as sharing your art publicly, you have to have a very strong sense of who’s on your side. Whether you’re ignored or teased or disagreed with vehemently, you need a safe space to come back to. You need those true friends who will listen to your silly fears. The ones who know when it’s a ‘glass of red’ or a ‘cup of tea’ or a ‘bag of chips’ or an ‘all three’ type-of-night. 

I fully believe that these people can be just as understanding and empathetic with us if they are encased in a video or a song or a letter or a memory, as those we are lucky enough to be able to call on in real life. Anne Lamott turned up as my cheerleader in the form of a book, Bird by Bird, and has been one of my safe people since 3:31pm on Saturday, 11 August, not yet two days after altMBA23 had finished. I can tell you that, because I left the receipt in the book by accident.

Where the best of tales are to be found, indeed.

Josh Radnor describes Anne perfectly like this: “She’s kind of like this sassy funny truth-telling sober alcoholic lefty inspirational Christian who writes here with total honesty about how hard it is to forgive (oneself and others)”. Anne has a beautiful sense of humour, has completely mastered the art of self-deprecation, and wisdom shines out of her pages as gently as the autumn sun – not looking to prove itself, but there for those who want to find the wonder.

Here she is in a piece I found in 2015 that I’d promptly forgotten about until researching this post. I couldn’t tell you how I found it originally, only that I thought it worthy enough to email JCB about.

I sometimes teach classes on writing, during which I tell my students every single thing I know about the craft and habit. This takes approximately 45 minutes. I begin with my core belief—and the foundation of almost all wisdom traditions—that there is nothing you can buy, achieve, own, or rent that can fill up that hunger inside for a sense of fulfillment and wonder. But the good news is that creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.

Then I bring up the bad news: You have to make time to do this.

… Needless to say, this is very distressing for my writing students. They start to explain that they have two kids at home, or five, a stable of horses or a hive of bees, and 40-hour workweeks. Or, on the other hand, sometimes they are climbing the walls with boredom, own nearly nothing, and are looking for work full-time, which is why they can’t make time now to pursue their hearts’ desires. They often add that as soon as they retire, or their last child moves out, or they move to the country, or to the city, or sell the horses, they will. They are absolutely sincere, and they are delusional.

Anne is like the Aunty you can trust to tell the truth when everyone else is feeding you bullshit to make themselves look good. She’s not interested in looking smart or proving her worth by what she wears or who she associates with. She has your intentions to be a writer or creative or just a good person by the throat and she does not let go. 

Anne’s internal compass points to a true North most of us are either too scared to admit exists, or too lazy to do anything about. She has a fierce belief in her own rightness, and will do anything she can to lead you towards her truth because she believes it can be true for you too. No matter what it costs her, no matter who sneers or catcalls or mutters, Anne keeps joy behind her eyes, underneath her words.

Anne is as fiercely determined as Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She’s as kind as The Queen in A Bug’s Life. She’s as funny as Mark Watney in The Martian, if not funnier. She’s as humble as Samwise in The Lord of the Rings. She’s as curious as Hair McLary. She’s as wise as Sazed in Mistborn. She’s as full of wonder as Jack in Room. She’s as committed to honesty as Ta-Nehisi Coates – enough to make you want to throw the book under the coach and turn on the television instead. Anne’s humility will prevent her from ever believing that she’s nailed it, but her readers believe she’s done better than most.

Lamott on the TED Stage

She helped to quell my fear of what to write about: “Life is like a recycling centre, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humour or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be seven billion different renditions.”

She helped me remember why writing was so important: “Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse of someone’s soul. All of a sudden, everything seems to fit together. This is our goal as writers – to help others have this sense of wonder, of seeing things anew. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.”

She helped me conquer some of the voices in my head: “Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look or how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done… Write towards vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable, worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked.”

There are books that let you know things.
There are books that let you feel things.
There are books that let you do things. 

Bird by Bird, Anne’s 1994 book on writing where all the quotations above are taken from, bridged the gap for me between learning, understanding, and acting. She taught me to laugh at myself. Her kind, gentle words encouraged me to get off my hands and stop obsessing about what other people thought of me; if published authors like Anne think the same sort of things I did, then I had no excuse. She made me see my experiences as something to share. Anne turned a dreamer into a doer, and is in no small part the genesis of this space and this human’s voice.

Even if you’re not interested in writing, Anne will still floor you. The topics she picks – family, mistakes, spiritual transformation, secrets, wonder, craziness – whether addressed through her non-fiction work or her stories, are all universal. 

If you’re not in the market for more to read, I understand. Watch her present with TED here, check out her NYT profile here, and follow her pithy remarks here and here.

And Anne, if you were listening, I’d say to you:

Thank you for helping me find my voice. For helping me see that it’s important to take my work seriously, but not myself. To remember that there is something funny about almost every situation. That there is beauty waiting to be found, and beauty within each of us. That the writer’s job is to notice, and to help us feel less alone. You have done that for me.

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