Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Cult of Anne Lamott

I remember the first time I saw Anne Lamott. It was back in the early 80s at some writing/journalism seminar at San Francisco State. She was sitting on a wooden chair in front of a group of eager writers, talking to them about creating fictional worlds.

I was an earnest newspaper reporter then, and I breezily passed by since I was more interested in learning investigative techniques than the craft of writing. But I knew Lamott’s work: I had loved her novel “Rosie,” the story of a little girl but was less excited about “Hard Laughter: A Novel,” which seemed to be about her alcoholic father.

Once, when my friend Ethan Canin, who hadn’t yet risen to literary fame, heard how much I enjoyed “Rosie,” he begged me to call Annie. She was so uncertain about her work, he said, that getting a compliment from a reader would cheer her up.

I never called Lamott. I am often shy around accomplished, published writers. As a reporter, I am adept at talking to almost anyone – CEOs, migrant workers, politicians. But I get tongue-tied around people I emulate.

Over years, my appreciation of Lamott’s work has grown – at least when she writes non-fiction. I was a new mother when she published Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son’s First Year, and I laughed and cried my way more than once through the slim blue tome.

That book made Lamott’s literary career – and spawned a cult-like devotion to her work that grew exponentially when she published Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. That book is like a Bible to aspiring writers, full of nuggets of wisdom, like Lamott’s admission that she always writes “shitty first drafts.” Bad writing can be made good, Lamott promises, as long as a writer is willing to keep working and reworking a piece. Her heart is open for others to succeed, and this attitude has won her many fans.

When she writes essays, like those in her new book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, you feel like she is your best friend. Her words are so simple, her fears and dreams so honest, that you feel you know her. She complains about her aging body, her dreadlocks, the funny little (or not so little) flap of skin on her stomach, her impatience with others. Here is an excerpt from the essay, Cruise Ship:

“We stood at the railing, our backs to the sea. Even from fifteen feet up, I could see the corrugated skin, the lumps and veins and chicken-skin knees of other passengers. I saw huge guts, bad moles. There were many fat, hairy middle-aged men in teeny bikinis, many matronly middle-aged women with big fallen breast and poor posture – that which used to be the offering was now the burden. But it’s our hearts that weigh us down. Who could even imagine what cargo these people carried?”

Women seem to particularly appreciate Lamott, probably because she writes so honestly about motherhood, the tyranny of beauty, and her insecurities. Technorati, a weblog search engine, lists 772 posts on Lamott the past few days. In contrast, Anna Quindlen got 458 listings, Ayelet Waldman, another confessional writer, got 152.

Lamott, who lives in Marin, is coming to Berkeley on Monday, March 21 to read from Plan B. The organizers at Cody’s know their Telegraph Avenue store can’t hold all her fans, so they have rented the First Congregational Church on Channing and are asking for a $10 donation.

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