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RE/VIEW: Anne Lamott

Sam Lamott

“Folk hero” among writers Anne Lamott revisits her life from writing to sobriety to creativity and her relationship with God.

Among writers, Anne Lamott is something of a folk hero. Readers love her too, of course, as her work exhibits both her soaring talent and her willingness to be completely and deeply human. Lamott is the author of seven novels and many works of bestselling nonfiction. She released a collection of essays, Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage, in March 2021.

In her 1994 classic, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Lamott introduced the wondrous concept of the “shitty first draft.” She explained in Bird by Bird, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” She talks of typing out a terrible first draft, and how that step allows the writer to trust herself; then she can move on to a second draft, and slowly the whole essay/ book report/restaurant review/novel becomes coherent and tolerable. Ideally it becomes something graceful, or hilarious, or meaningful—but at least something that is worth reading. These first drafts are what liberate us.

At 67, she’s been writing full-time for about 47 years and still writes daily. “I wake up, I say my prayers, I let the dog out to pee, I have a cup of coffee,” she says. And then she writes. “I’m very strict with myself. I’m very, very disciplined. I have discovered that it’s only in discipline that I can experience creative freedom, or actually any kind of freedom. I just get to work. I don’t negotiate with myself, and I certainly don’t wait until I feel like writing. I don’t wait for inspiration—that’s just another way that the superego can keep me from writing at all. I write as a habit and as a debt of honor and by prearrangement with myself.”

I have discovered that it’s only in discipline that I can experience creative freedom or actually any kind of freedom.

Spirituality is a constant theme for Lamott, as is her longtime sobriety. Both topics come up in Dusk, Night, Dawn. In some of the book’s most tender tales, she talks of the lessons she works on for Sunday school at her tiny church.

“Well, for me, it’s all about Jesus,” says Lamott of teaching children about faith. “It’s all sort of a Rorschach test. Can you find the God in this picture? We go to a tiny room with incredible art the kids have made over the years and beautiful sacred images from around the world. I’ve got the glitter and the snacks. Our hope is to want kids to come back the following Sunday and find out what all this God business is about.”

“Before I got sober, I’ve been going to this church,” she continues. “I converted to Christianity. I love Jesus. I always loved Jesus, but I was raised by atheists, so you were forbidden to. I love God, but I thought I was so defective because I was drinking and using and just had terrible boundary issues with men late at night at bars, let’s say. I just did a lot of stuff that was part of the disease of alcoholism. I loved God and I knew God loved me, but I thought I was defective, from the dented-can store. Little by little as I got sober, the women who were around me and helping me, they taught me that I wasn’t defective.”

When she was a child in the 1950s, Lamott absorbed the idea that women couldn’t be mad. The women’s movement helped change that. Women could be grief-struck, or angry, or whatever emotion was coursing through them. “You could be whatever you actually truly and authentically were. The women who helped me get sober taught me that, and it took me years and years to believe it. At first I thought, ‘What’s the catch?’ Little by little as I got more and more involved in both recovery and my church, I began to believe it whole- heartedly because that’s what I was teaching my kids.”

In April 2019, Lamott wed Neal Allen. She is still adjusting to married life. “With Neal or my son or my grandson— there’s a lot of people on this property—so there are a lot of opportunities to not react, and to not correct people, and to not give my unasked-for opinion,” she says.

She wears a loose rubber band on her wrist, similar to what people do when they are trying to quit smoking. “I use the rubber band and snap it as a tool to remember it will pass—the stuff that comes up in marriage—if I can just cycle through it. The rubber band is so incredible because it’s like you’re spritzing yourself with a plant mister. Anything I can do spiritually to spritz myself with a plant mister is what is going to help me realize the deep gratitude I feel that God sent me Neal. Gratitude is the way to happiness. Gratitude and service are the paths to joy, so it’s worth the work.”