Reading, writing, and laughing with Anne Lamott

A woman I work with is teaching a course in Creative Writing that I will be teaching in January. She has assigned a book for her students to read: bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

And in a marvelous feat of procrastination, I decided to begin reading it as well–instead of the three other books that I need to be reading right now for the classes I am currently teaching.

And it was a good decision.  I have not yet completed it–but I have laughed through much of it.  Lamott has a voice–a way with words– that seems nurturing, real, wise and funny.

For instance: “We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so very little.”
Where in the world did those “sheep lice” come from? But better yet, look at the next to the last word–“very.”  How perfect is “very” in this instance.

She gives us a bit of her own background, her bookish parents, her father the writer, her feelings of insecurity and isolation–the gist of many a writer’s baggage. And she gives us episodes from the writing courses she teaches.  Many of her students, it seems, don’t want to write, they want to be published. They want the fame, the riches, the sense of satisfaction that they believe they will attain when they are published.  And they are so wrong.  And yet, time and again in her courses questions about agents, editors and publishers  maddeningly outnumber questions about writing.  She tells them to try to get a refund on their tuition!

There are no special formulas, secret tricks, magic keys that will get you published, she tells them. And to illustrate that she tells this story:

My son, Sam, at three and a half, had these keys to a set of plastic handcuffs, and one morning he intentionally locked himself out of the house. I was sitting on the couch reading the newspaper when I heard him stick his plastic keys into the doorknob and try to open the door. Then I heard him say, “Oh, shit.” My whole face widened, like the guy in Edvard Munch’s Scream. After a moment I got up and opened the front door.

“Honey,” I said, “what’d you just say?”

I said, ‘Oh, shit,” he said.

“But, honey, that’s a naughty word. Both of us have absolutely got to stop using it. Okay?”

He hung his head for a moment, nodded, and said, “Okay, Mom.” Then he leaned forward and said confidentially, “But i’ll tell you why I said ‘shit.’ I said Okay, and he said, “Because of the fucking keys!”

There are no “fucking keys” that will get you in, she tells her students–and some get it and some don’t.

The best advice she says she ever received about writing–and which she passes on to her students–came from  the writer Natalie Goldberg.  When asked for the best possible writing advice, Goldberg picked up a pad of paper and mimicked the act of writing, page after page after page. The best advice?  Write and write and write and write.

So I am enjoying this book immensely but not necessarily for its writerly advice. I am enjoying Lamott’s voice, the natural flow of her words, the wise humor of her thought.

In describing, a person she does not like, whom she believes even God dislikes, she repeats this observation that a priest friend of hers passed on: “…you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

How perfect.