The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: The Wisdom of Anne Lamott

I have no idea how I found Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life that year, but I was mesmerized by it from the beginning -- like everyone says, it reads like a novel.
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As I have mentioned here before, I can be something of a literary fangirl. Nowhere was this more apparent when I had the opportunity to see Anne Lamott speak last week. Anne Lamott.

Anne Freaking Lamott.

Let me back up here and let you know that the writing geek lives in Arkansas, a more or less civilized place with Starbucks and Sephoras and everything, but I had pretty much given up on ever seeing this particular author crush as long as I lived here.

Then, the Second Presbyterian Church of Little Rock announced her appearance last February and I nearly fainted with joy. I am only sort of exaggerating. Tickets were only $25. My friend, Dee, even picked mine up for me.

We sat right up front, because Jim Guy Tucker, (yes, the Jim Guy Tucker), who took our tickets, told us to fill up the front because "Presbyterians don't like to sit up there." I'm a relatively sedate person, but I stood right up until Lamott entered the church because I was simply too excited to sit down.

Let me back up even further -- so that you can truly grasp the importance of this occasion -- all the way to 1994, to a scared, young writer who had felt her way blindly among writing craft books for years, most of them admonishing, scolding, male.

John Gardner, John Gardner, John Gardner. There was nothing wrong with John Gardner except he was all I had to pull off the shelf when I needed some inspiration. John Gardner and I did not have a lot in common, and while he could be instructive, he really was not all that inspiring. I learned what I needed to from him; there are reasons my copies of The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist are heavily creased, but he still left me wanting.

I have no idea how I found Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life that year, but I was mesmerized by it from the beginning -- like everyone says, it reads like a novel. I had an MFA in fiction by then, complete with a parade of stellar teachers, but no one told me in quite the way Lamott did that drafting was messy, really, really messy and that was okay. No one told me that I had to turn off my critics, radio KFKD, for good if I was going to do this right. No one told me that if all I got from hours of writing was permission to focus on one image of say, "the kid by the fence," that was okay. No one had ever given me that permission. And I needed it. Desperately.

I also needed to hear these things from a woman. I'd had over the previous seven years two female writing teachers; the rest had all been male. I needed the female perspective in at least equal measure. Without realizing it, I hungered for it. Bird by Bird fed me.

I have taught Bird by Bird many times since 1994, and while it doesn't reach all of my students, it's a life preserver for enough of them that I don't intend to stop. Ever. I hand it to new writers all the time. And I have read it again and again over the years, always finding in it new bits of wisdom that I did not see the first time, always being fed.

I am not much of a re-reader, I can count the number of books I have re-read in my life on one hand -- life is simply too short -- but my copy of Bird By Bird is creased, dog eared and flutters with sticky notes, never far from my writing space. And now, it is signed.

So back to Lamott's talk. It was -- surprise -- everything I thought it would be, even though the day of travel seemed to have left her a little weary and fearful of Arkansas snakes. I do not know who told her that we have a scary amount of snakes; clearly, she has not spent much time in Texas. The fact I found perhaps most interesting was that she isn't on contract to write any books for the foreseeable future, and she might be taking a break. After 15 books, she certainly deserves it. She might just give her wisdom away free on Facebook for a while, which makes those of us who follow her there very, very lucky.

Lamott also talked about how hard it is to raise teenagers, and she didn't sugarcoat it, which made me feel vindicated and hopeful at the same time, since that's where I am as a parent right now, and since her 20-something son still lives with her and seems to be okay -- at least he hasn't robbed a string of gas stations, as far as I know.

That's what I think I love about Anne Lamott most of all. She doesn't sugarcoat anything. She reminds us parenthood is hard, and that it's okay to admit it sometimes. Writing is hard, it's messy and it's okay to admit that too, in fact, messiness and failure are what what make writing and art sacred. Just being human is hard and wild and paradoxical, especially for those of us who are on the sensitive side, that is, those of us who are paying attention and telling the truth about it, as Lamott reminds us to.

Our culture pressures us not to let on about this hard stuff, to pretend that "we've got this, so back off, thank you very much." The truth is, if we complained all the time, we'd be a society of whiners. Still, there has to be a balance. As writers, we owe it to those who want to follow us to draw the curtain back on our messes as much as we can, and at the same time, make it clear that the process is different for everyone, and that's okay. But it's almost always messy at some point along the way.

My son was heading off to his first day at a service job the other day, and he confessed that he was really nervous about it -- as if this was a character flaw, as if it was something to be ashamed about. "Of course you're nervous," I told him. "It's hard to learn all that new stuff. It's normal to be nervous. It would be weird if you weren't nervous."

That's what Lamott's work has done for me, in Bird by Bird, in her spiritual writing, her novels, her occasional tweets and her generous Facebook posts, she reminds me of the abundance of grace in a world in which, in her words, "the only reason the system works is that we're not all crazy on the same day." We're all a little odd. We're all a little nervous. And that's okay.

It would be weird if we weren't.

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