Lessons from Anne Lamott


This summer, as I finished working on the proposal for my memoir, I took breaks to listen to a recording of Anne Lamott’s talk at Book Passage University at 2019. With my kids in school and dinner not planned yet and laundry piling in every hamper, I swallowed hard when she said this:

“What we spent a lot of the class on before was why people couldn’t be expected to write all that much YET, but as soon as the husband retired, as soon as the last kid left high school and moved out, as soon as they move to the Russian River…and we would always say ‘Thank you for sharing. You won’t write then either.'”

Unwittingly, I’ve taken this to heart in the last four years, dragging myself covered with dusty words and moldy habits back into a writing practice. I’m not as disciplined as Anne, who insists we all need an hour a day, but I’ve been solidly thrashing the cobwebs off my voice at least a few times weekly for years now. I’m about to turn forty-five, and to show for my lifetime of writing words, I have a lovely small collection of bylines which you can (*should*) read, a completed memoir manuscript, a completed book proposal (agents, reach out to me, please!), and a few hundred dollars. 

I remember composing overly-sentimental poems on an airplane at nine years old, while my brother and mother slept in the next two seats. I felt serious and adult, awake with my muse while my family was none the wiser. I carried my shiny folder of poems everywhere, an extra bundle in my backpack alongside my spelling words and math problems. AUTHOR, I wrote with gravitas on any form where an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

In college, too young and too naive to know better, I majored in English and Creative Writing. I sat with a bowl of candy next to my computer, rewarding myself at the end of every page with a nibble. I wrote short stories, a dozen or more, imagining any life but mine. I kept that ruse going in graduate school, inventing a whole community for my thesis, a collection of stories about a fictional town in Southern Illinois. I was desperately lonely and totally broke, the only 20 year old in graduate school, and my writing practice was also my therapy practice and my best friend and my entertainment. All the stories I wrote were distant from my sphere of connection. My graduate advisor looked over his glasses at me and said, “So, Debi: when are you going to write about your own experiences?” Shortly thereafter, my master’s program ended.

When had no money to finish my PhD and the internet buzzed into existence, I set down my pen and my keyboard for years. Anne was right; there was no good time to write, even when there were hours. I wasn’t writing because the time was wrong, the world was wrong, and I was too heartbroken that the universe of word-exploration didn’t seem to extend outside the classrooms I’d loved. I barely wrote a word for nineteen years until, one day in 2014. I’d sat in a coffee shop across from a friend who wanted to know how I was, preparing for my daughter’s heart surgery, and I realized that writing it was the only way I could survive it. I cried as I typed. It was holy.

Still, this week has been the hardest week yet for my writing practice. I suspect this week will repeat itself. I’m looking for validation through publication, I admit, and at my headiest moment of anticipation, writer Sharon Van Epps shared her story of the heights and depths of the journey. I read it like a roadmap.

And now, as I wait for agents to reply to my emails — and lick my wounds after one particularly exciting one said no — I’m still vibrating with anticipation of all the ways this could make me feel real, accomplished and completed. Then I read Sharon’s essay again, and remember Anne Lamott again. In her TED talk in 2017, she cautioned:

“…publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and evil people I’ve ever known are male writers who’ve had huge best sellers. And yet, returning to number one, that all truth is paradox, it’s also a miracle to get your work published, to get your stories read and heard. Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, that it will fill the Swiss-cheesy holes inside of you. It can’t. It won’t. But writing can.”

Moment to moment, I don’t know whether to write or not-write, to edit or leave things be, to expand or contract, to reinvent or to construct something entirely new. I sit at my keyboard and stare at my hands. I am every age in which I have ever written, and all the ages to come. I can set a pattern of entropy or one of constant generation.

I’ve quoted from Anne Lamott more than any other writer on this blog. I’ll end with this beautiful thought on which I will try to focus my anticipation and publishing dreams:

“When hope is not pinned wriggling onto a shiny image or expectation, it sometimes floats forth and opens.”

Amen. Back to the work.

This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post hosted by Kristi of FindingNinee.com. Today’s prompt is “my favorite age.”

If you love Anne Lamott’s advice — especially coming from her own voice — as much as I do, you’ll adore her son Sam, too. If you sponsor his fascinating podcast Hello Humans, you can get access to a video of Anne’s writing class at Book Passages University. Go to the podcast’s Patreon page, become a patron, and then scroll to the post from June 24, 2019. 

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from Anne Lamott

  1. I so hope you get good news from an agent soon. Sending all good thoughts for that your way. I love Anne Lamott. I haven’t read anything of hers in a couple of years but she’s always so right and insightful. I like the passage you shared about getting published not filling the holes… when I first started writing publicly, I thought “when I get published in (fill in the blank), I’ll have made it,” but then, when I did get published there, it felt like something more should have changed, if that makes sense. Her words are a good reminder that the practice is what helps. Thank you for the reminder!

  2. Wow, Debi, this one resonated with me. I was told from a young age that I was a ‘math-brained’ person. I got a college degree in mathematics and identified with the black and white logic of solving math problems. Then I had Brady who seemed to not fit into a labeled box. He challenged me to stretch my narrow way of thinking and parent him in a revolutionary (for me) way. Just like you, I had experiences with Brady that made me want to write. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that he’s changed me from the inside out, and that I really like this new me. Maybe she was there all along but now she’s boldly present and has softer eyes.

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