bird by bird with annie

In Her Own Words

Hear and read Anne Lamott on writing, mothering, getting sober and more.

On being a writer:

“I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink. Because you’re always on borrowed time. None of your favorite writers, let alone your own personal self, sits down in the morning and just feels great about the work ahead of them. No one sits down and feels like a million dollars. People sit down and go into either fugue states or into this highly aerobicized sort of up-down thing.

During the O.J. [Simpson] trial all hell broke loose ‘cause I work downstairs in this office; some people might call it a garage. And the TV is upstairs and so I’d sit down, get up, sit down, get up, sit down, get up, say my little prayer. I’d pray, Please, God, help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written. And then I’d sit down and I would do a little bribe and I would say, ‘If you stay here for half an hour and you write that one tiny little moment where the uncle sees the shores of Inverness, California for the first time in his life then we will get up and watch a little O.J.’”

On her childhood:

“I was a very shy child and found a lot of solace in the written word, like Rosie [a character in several of Lamott’s novels] does. I was also someone who got teased a lot because I looked so strange; I had this wild pure white, but very African hair. I can remember boys that I didn’t even know driving by me on bicycles and shouting things at me about my hair, they were like drive-by shoutings. I felt like a snail that was having salt poured on it, it was so demoralizing; it was so awful, especially if there was another friend around. And I got funny in response to that; I was the class clown by first grade. And I was somebody that people for some reason entrusted their stories to. I was always good with words; my father really encouraged me a lot. He taught me you do scales; it’s going to be like learning a musical instrument, you have to be willing to make a lot of mistakes.

I always thought that I was just a complete loser because I looked so different from the other girls. And I was athletic, you know, I was all the things that you’re not really supposed to be and I didn’t think I was okay. In eighth grade you’re completely hormonally challenged up the ying-yang and on top of all these feelings they make you go to dances. I had walked to the dance like Richard Nixon, you know, like this. And stood around, and it’s surprising that no one asked me to dance, and then I had like a beer and a half. And boys asked me to dance and I was home free. I think things started to work for me a little bit better when I started to take drugs and to drink alcoholically. And I started to drink pretty regularly by the time I was 13.”

On getting sober:

“I got very drunk on a nightly basis from the time I was about 19 ‘til 32. I’d wake up and I would just be pinned to the bed by centrifugal force and I would start trying to put the night together and my work was really suffering. I stopped because I was just well enough to realize I was probably going to die of it. I called a sober alcoholic named Jack who’s been a really great family friend and I said, ‘I quit,’ and he said, ‘Great, let’s talk.’”

On her religious faith:

“As we sat there on the runway the man reading the book about the apocalypse commented on the small gold cross I wear on a necklace. I would describe him physically as being rather prim and tense, maybe a little like David Eisenhower with a spastic colon. “Are you born again?” he asked as we taxied down the runway. I did not know how to answer for a moment. “Yes I am - I am.” My friends like to tell each other that I am not really a born-again Christian; they think of me more along the lines of that old Jonathan Miller routine where he says, ‘I’m not really a Jew; I’m Jewish.’ They think I’m Christianish but I’m not, I’m just a bad Christian maybe. And certainly like the Apostle Peter I am capable of denying it, of presenting myself as a sort of leftist liberation theology enthusiast and general Jesusy bon vivant, but it’s not true. And I believe when you get on a plane if you start lying you are doomed. So I told the truth that I am in fact a believer and a convert. I’m probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus fish on the back of my car.”

On explaining to her son why she's a single parent

“I just always told him the truth, which is that his father and I were not really very involved and that his father had grown children and wasn’t ready to be a father and it really had nothing to do with Sam. Sometimes he’s been frustrated with me, he feels that if I had a better personality the father would have stuck around. I’ve been very open to the father coming back into Sam’s life. I have in the meantime provided Sam with the very, very best men that money can buy, which are all the men I’m closest to. You know, we made a family - it was the family of choice, not the family of birth. Not having a father has left a very specific hole inside of him that a bunch of other men aren’t going to be able to fill. But I think also that that hole has been a really great teacher of compassion for Sam and he tends to gravitate to and be very tender and understanding with people who have also suffered a great loss in their life.”

On getting your writing done:

“Maybe you really don’t want to write, maybe you want to read, but if you do want to write, life is going by very quickly and if you’re not careful you’re going to be 80 years old and have spent your life wishing that you’d gotten your work done. I think it’s good to consider where you’re going to be at 80. I believe at 80 we’re not going to wish we spent more time cleaning our houses. I believe at 80 we’re not going to wish we’d stayed out of warm tropical water more often ‘cause our thighs were not firm. Really no one cares if you get your writing done, it’s of no cosmic importance that you do. All I know that if it’s in you you’re going to get sick if you don’t let it out. And it’s your memories and your dreams and your versions of things and these characters who’ve selected you to be their typist. You’re their own Rosemary Woods. If you don’t have the luxury of writing 8 to 5, give up the 10 o’clock news. The 10 o’clock news only serves to ruin the next day’s newspaper. And to tell you about fires in areas you never go to, so what’s the point? So have you have an hour then, if you can budget the hour from 10 to 11, give up this one thing. It’s like God will meet you half way and be like, ‘Okay, cookie, let’s go.’”

On dreadlocks:

“I’ve had dreadlocks for three and a half years now. I have been successfully moussifying it into submission for many years but praying all the time that there be no weather. Because if there were weather then it would shrink up by about 80 percent, and this African American professor kept saying, ‘Yours would do it - yours would do it.’ I mean, they’re fabulous. I’m getting some fuzzification now in this humidity and that’s very disturbing.”

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