By Laurie McAndish King/December 12, 2012
“Menopause did not sharpen my clarity and focus as much as I had hoped it would. I’m just like I was at seven–all over the place.” The audience erupts in laughter. Most of us, like author Anne Lamott, are women in the “very late youth” phase of our lives; we know exactly what she means.
The standing-room-only audience at this Book Passage event has come to St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City, California, to hear Lamott talk about her new book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, which has been on The New York Times Bestseller list for several weeks.
Lamott is the author of seven novels and five bestselling works of non-fiction, including Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which is one of my personal favorites. She has been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship and inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
I know why her books are bestsellers, and why there’s SRO tonight; Lamott writes about real life without sugar-coating or political correctness. Reading that kind of writing is freeing. Lamott’s being okay with her real self gives me permission to be okay with my real self, too.
St. Andrew is the perfect place to hear Annie. It is her own church; she has been worshipping here, teaching Sunday School, helping with the food bank, for many years. It is, Lamott says, the most important part of her life.
I like the fit for another reason. St. Andrew is a poor, mostly-black church in a rich, mostly-white county, and it reminds me of Annie’s trademark blonde dreadlocks, the kind of hair Doris Day and James Brown’s love child would have.
“I have never in my life waited for inspiration.”
“I don’t have a good memory,” Annie continues. “I always carry a pen. I’m always writing, even if I say I’m not. I’m always open for business. All my pants are ruined; they have ink stains on the back pockets. I pull over when I’m driving to write things down.” That is the first of Lamott’s writing tips–write!–and here is the second:
“I love structure. I need discipline. I believe discipline is the path to freedom. My dad was a writer; he was always up at 5:30 in the morning tap-tap-tapping away. I’ve never in my life waited for inspiration. I don’t believe in inspiration for writers. I say a prayer every morning: I offer myself up to thee, to build with me and to do with me as thou wilt… Then I get really strong coffee; I’m not stupid!”
And there’s my first glimpse of the prayer that permeates Annie’s life. She doesn’t get into details, but it’s clear Lamott has lived through alcohol and drug abuse, financial problems, serious family illnesses, and the challenges of single parenthood–and come out on the other side, sober and spiritually alive.
So a book about prayer is a natural fit. “I wrote it in four months. I was up at 6 a.m. every day–and not even bitter [about the time]! I loved writing it. It helps to have one short thing to get done. I give myself a short assignment. It took me at least two-and-a-half to three weeks to write the intro to the book, which is only seven pages. I believe in writing terrible first drafts, putting in too much detail. I write twenty pages for a ten-page chapter. Butt on the chair–that’s my mantra. Butt back on the chair.”
“The secret of life is to have a few friends who will help you at the level of being very vulnerable.”
“A novel takes me three years to write. For the first year I don’t even know what I am doing. I haven’t gotten to know the characters yet. I am full of self-doubt and self-loathing for the first year. But it’s like labor; you get through it. I have people to help me; people to keep me honest. That’s what we all need.
“The secret of life is to have a few friends who will help you at the level of being very vulnerable. You can say to them, ‘Will you read this? Will you tell me what you think? Will you be with me while I do this? Will you help me?’ And they do.”
Help is the first of the three great prayers. Here is how Lamott explains it in Help, Thanks, Wow:
“I don’t pray for God to do this or that, or for God’s sake to knock it off, or for specific outcomes. Well, okay, maybe a little. When my great hero Arthur Ashe had AIDS for quite awhile, he said: ‘God’s will alone matters. When I played tennis, I never prayed for victory in a match. I will not pray now to be cured of heart disease or AIDS.’ So I pray, Help.”
If you’re a writer, it also helps to have natural talent. “It took me fifty-plus years to be able to say I have a gift,” Lamott discloses. “It still makes me feel kinda’ scared to say that out loud. I was always good at telling a story. If something happened on the playground, people would look to me to say what we had all just experienced. I could figure out where to start, and I had an eye for the lily pads where the narrative had to land.
“I remember the day my dad handed me a postcard of a baby snowy owl and asked me if I could tell about it. Of course I could! I had the gift of a good imagination.” And for that, as well as many other blessings, Lamott says Thanks, the second great prayer.
“A lot of us religious types go around saying thank you to God when we find a good parking space, or locate the house keys or the wandering phone, or finally get a good night’s sleep. And while that may be annoying to the people around us, it’s important because if we are lucky, gratitude becomes a habit… You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out, too.”
The third prayer–Wow!–is about recognizing awesomeness: in shocking beauty, in horrifying destruction, in momentary grace and in our everyday lives. Wow is about being fully present and stunned into wonder by the world around us. Wow is about allowing ourselves to appreciate ordinariness.
And appreciating ordinariness is what led Lamott to finding her writer’s voice. “For years and years I never got published. At first I tried to be too funny. I thought if people laughed at what I said, it wouldn’t freak them out. [Later I learned that] people don’t need me to dance and be entertaining; they just want me to tell a story in a certain way. Partly [you find your voice] by finding out what isn’t you, what isn’t authentic… I love Barbara Kingsolver, but I cannot tell my truth in her voice. You just keep trying, and taking out what isn’t you. Ordinary old me; that’s all I have to offer you.”
Ordinary old Annie: unfocused, diligent, in need of discipline, butt on the chair, born-again, scared, prayerful, imperfect, gifted, forgetful, chosen, loved, and one awesome writer. Wow! I can’t wait to read her new book!
Lead photo credit: Sam Lamott
About the Author:
As an award-winning travel writer and photographer, Laurie McAndish King has a knack for finding adventure all around the world. Her work has aired on public radio and appeared in Smithsonian magazine, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2009, and other magazines and literary anthologies. You can contact Laurie here.