may: notes on anne lamott

June 3, 2009

Post #5 in my year-long project.

so many highlights

random notes:

I have to watch myself when I read Anne Lamott.

I only have to read a little, and suddenly I’m trying to write like her. Trying to be funny. Littering my lines with qualifiers: the merest bit jealous, or a tad overzealous. Once the tidepool metaphors start showing up in my paragraphs I recognize what’s going on and force myself to stop.

Much as I’d like to, I can’t write like Anne Lamott. She’s one of a kind. I know she drives some people batty with her gritchy neuroses, but my love for her is unabashed.

She makes me snort aloud as I read.

She writes analogies like no one else–similes and metaphors that you don’t expect, but which are apt and ridiculous and perfect. She might compare her anxieties to both Richard Nixon’s posture and a sea anemone (see: tidepools!) yet she does it in such a way that you absolutely get what she means.

She whines and grouses and worries about Robert de Niro’s mole, but then she turns around and sees unfathomable beauty in the most homely of people and situations.

And the woman knows how to end an essay. Reading her last paragraphs, I often think of what it must be like to parachute from a plane. I see the white space approaching, and I know I’m almost to the end, about to hit the ground. But then in the last few lines, she’ll throw something unexpected in–an image from earlier in the essay, maybe–and the words will come together in such astounding beauty that I’ll hit the last word feeling sucker-punched and stunned and utterly exhilarated.

I like to think of her as my own little pocket writer. I’m a little possessive of her, I’m afraid: I discovered her early, on the shelf of a local bookstore way back in the late 80s when she was just a Bay Area writer who’d published a few novels. But then suddenly she was helping me just when I needed her: publishing Operating Instructions when my oldest was a baby; Bird by Bird when I was desperately trying to learn to write; and her books on spirituality just when I needed to be reassured that Christianity and intellect don’t have to be mutually exclusive. She’s the pebble in my pocket that I come back to for comfort and reflection, again and again and again.

But allow her to speak for herself.

a few lines to love:

These are from Bird by Bird:

“I learned to be like a ship’s rat, veined ears trembling, and I learned to scribble it all down.”

It’s the veined ears trembling that does it for me.

What can happen when you sit down to write:

“Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.”

And here it’s the weird coppery breath.

or:

“Typically you may find yourself wondering how some really awful writer you know is doing, and why he is doing so much better than you, and what it will be like to be on David Letterman’s show, and whether he will mock you or laugh at all your jokes and let you be his new best friend, and what you should eat for lunch, and what it would feel like for your hair to be on fire or for someone–like a critic or something–to stick a sharp object into your eye. Not to worry. Gently bring your mind back to your work.”

Over and over in Bird by Bird–and in all her writing–she makes you feel like you can’t possibly be as insane as she is; if she can write, you can.

“My friend then mentioned apricot jam, which was even worse than raspberry. I had not thought about this in thirty years, but now it all came back with horrible clarity. Apricot jam looked too much like glue, or mucilage. But you could count on having apricot jam when your father made the lunch. Fathers loved apricot jam; I don’t know why, but I’m sure Anna Freud could have a field day with it.”

Maybe I’m the only other person whose father would make such sandwiches (if he wasn’t making peanut-butter-and-mayonnaise ones) but I think not. Somehow Lamott manages to capture the odd universalisms that no one else has bothered to notice.

Advice on finding your writing voice:

“I love for my students to want to have this effect. But their renditions never ring true, any more than they ring true a few months later when Ann Beattie’s latest book arrives and my students start submitting stories about shiny bowls and windowpanes. We do live our lives on surfaces, and Beattie does surfaces beautifully, burnishing them, bringing out the details. But when my students do Beattie, their stories tend to be lukewarm, and I say to them, Life is lukewarm enough! If I’m going to read about a bunch of people who drive Volkswagens and seem to have mostly Volkswagen-sized problems, and the writer shows them driving around on the top of the ice, I want a sense that there’s a lot of very, very cold water down below.”

and two pages later:

“And the truth of your experience can only come through in your own voice. If it is wrapped up in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes.” 

Or, in my case, parading around in a Lamott-y dreadlocked wig. Somehow I just can’t pull it off.

From Operating Instructions.

On breastfeeding:

“Sam does these fabulous nipple tricks now, lolling around at my nipple, pushing it in and out of his mouth with his tongue, sort of lackadaisically, like it’s a warm summer day and he doesn’t have much else to do but work over his wad of chewing tobacco.”

See what I mean about ridiculous, absolutely apt analogies? Here’s another:

“I swear Sam is a week away from walking…Yesterday I was in the bathroom, and Megan was with him in the kitchen, letting him crawl around. She went to the front door to let the kitty out, and when she got back, Sam had climbed the four steps of the ladder to the loft and, as Megan reports, was sitting on the mattress like the Buddha, very pleased with himself in the most casual possible way, like “Hey, baby, just hanging out here on my mom’s bed. Come on up and have a beer!”

Let me see if I can show you what I mean about her final paragraphs. (Of course, the paragraph is more powerful if you’ve read the entire essay.) This one comes from Traveling Mercies, in an essay about sharing a stage with Grace Paley. Lamott and Paley gave two appearances together; the first time they tried out Lamott’s idea for a format and the evening went badly. They tried a second time, and here’s her final paragraph:

     “And the evening went really well. Grace was honest and sweet and tough, and she made everyone in the audience feel like going out and fighting the great good fight. Also, she’s absolutely the only woman I know who can wear socks with fancy shoes and a dress and still look great. It’s the beauty of comfort. She shone. I was just me, which Grace said later was all anyone asked. I’d really wanted to by Cyd Charisse onstage, but as usual, if I’d gotten what I wanted, I would have shortchanged myself. What I wanted was acclaim, and what I got was Grace, lovely and plain in her faded dress and dark socks, smiling at me all night.”

Yep. I’m keeping her in my pocket always.

the plan for june:

I’ll be reading E.B. White. I have an inkling that one ought not attempt to be an essayist without spending some time with White.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

gramps June 3, 2009 at 12:45 pm

…and I, too, love Apricot jam.

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patricia June 3, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Oh yes, I know you do. That’s why I found that section of the book so hilarious.

She doesn’t, however, mention clam linguini omelettes.

Reply

melissa s. June 3, 2009 at 2:12 pm

I’ve added Lamott to my reading list. I’m up for some snorts and sucker punches!

Reply

patricia June 3, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Have you not read her yet? Oh, you’ll love her, I’m sure. You will definitely be snorting and gasping for air.

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stefaneener June 3, 2009 at 8:56 pm

I like hearing E.B. White. That’s a real treat.

Final paragraphs are my Waterloo. So very very difficult, and often so cold.

Thanks for another example of good close reading.

Reply

susan June 4, 2009 at 4:33 am

The bit about apricot jam made me snort, too, when first I read Bird by Bird. It was my grandfather who made us such lunches. He once used cream cheese to grease the pan when making us grilled cheese sandwiches as we stared on in horror. You are inspiring me to reread when I get home.

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Kristin June 8, 2009 at 9:31 pm

I’ve never heard of her. I like what you’ve shared about her writing. I will have to read one of those books sometime. Her descriptions are excellent.

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molly June 15, 2009 at 7:51 pm

ahhhh. i need to share this post with my sister-in-law. she is reading and or re-reading all of lamott’s books this summer, then going back through and gathering her favorite lines. i loved bird by bird. just finished blue shoe – loved the language, wasn’t so crazy about the story, the characters, or the ending. i’ll have to give her short stories a try.

one of my favorite short story authors is jhumpa lahiri.

regarding dads and sandwiches: when my brother was born and my mom was out of commission, we were also out of bread. my dad made peanut butter and jelly on tortillas. i will never forget that lunch.

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patricia June 15, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Your sister-in-law is rereading them all and then going back and gathering her favorite lines? She sounds like my kind of gal!

Lamott writes mostly novels and personal essays–not short stories. So if you liked Bird By Bird more than Blue Shoe, you should give some of her other nonfiction a try.

I’ve only read novels by Jhumpa Lahiri, but I love her too!

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