“And have mercy on those who doubt.”
I’ve got a confession: I’m not sure if I like Anne Lamott or not anymore. And to be honest, I feel terribly guilty about the whole thing. Like I’m betraying my tribe by turning away from this Wise and Wacky Woman Writer who has done so much for the genre of memoir. But still.
Lifetimes ago in undergrad, when I still wrote fiction and had first begun to seriously entertain the idea of writing for a living, her fantastic treatise on writing, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” was assigned to me as a text in a short-fiction creative writing class. I read it in a day or two, dug it immensely, marked it up lovingly for compulsive future reference, and kept the book on hand throughout my twenties for inspiration and support as I tunneled my way through Early Grownuphood, with all its evil blind alleys and shadowy valleys of incertitude.
Time passed. My writing and life skills grew in fits and starts, and I’d regularly find myself gazing, horrified, backwards at the winding trail of mediocre writing that snaked out behind me. Each year, I’d sort through the things I’d written the year before and conclude that my efforts had been mostly terrible, albeit slightly less terrible than the efforts of the year before that. And each time the realization threatened to engulf me as I went spinning off into some bout of existential sniffling. I’d been writing since I was five. How could I still be so shockingly unpolished? Why was this all so very hard?
But then I’d recall what Ms. Lamott had to say about honoring the place we writers must start and progress from, and about how important it is to embrace the fact that the things we create are always a little bit crap at the outset, that shitty first drafts are right and good and also simply unavoidable. She says:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
So it was. Shitty first drafts, over and over. And sometimes even shitty second and third drafts, too. I grew. I stopped apologizing to myself for the scads of sucky writing I produced, and I kept on producing. Lamott gave me permission to forgive myself for my failure to arrive as a 20-year old literary sensation, then a 25-year-old literary sensation, then a 30-year-old literary sensation, and to keep on hammering away at it in obscurity as the years piled up and I gained my footing.
This slim little title is so nurturing and process-affirming, and it contains so very much knowledge. I’ve recommended it to my creative writing students and clients regularly over the past decade. Over the years, I also picked up a few of her other works, which include around half a dozen novels and some eight or so non-fiction books. I found her fiction a bit dull, but tore through a beautiful memoir she wrote about the birth of her first grandson to her own teenage son. She was vulnerable and accessible. She was cranky and abidingly honest. She shared my habit of swearing for emphasis, she had a corona of weird little eff-you dreadlocks sprouting out of the top of her head. She was somebody you could drink green tea and have a popcorn party with, and she wouldn’t judge you if you got kernels stuck in your teeth or a little pee came out when the two of you got to laughing especially hard. What more could an aspiring female essayist hope for in the way of literary role modeling?
There’s just one little problem: Anne Lamott is religious. Not in a cloyingly ignorant way, or even in a condescendingly pious way, but in that leftist-rapturist I’m-not-sorry kind of way that somehow makes me even more nervous. Like it might be catching or something.
As a Mostly Atheist, and as a person who believes that religions are like genitals — private things that shouldn’t be taken out in mixed company, unless, you know, somebody actually asks — I feel somewhat irrationally betrayed whenever a writer or musician I enjoy inserts Christian dogma into an otherwise perfectly enjoyable piece of work. I feel tricked.
And Lamott is a self-described born again Christian, and she can definitely get Jesusy at times (her word; not mine), making casual reference to priest “friends” and WWJD bracelets, getting herself shelved in the spiritual section of the bookstore, always managing to sneak in rogue mentions of Jesus when she does a book reading. It’s a part of her own described whole, and she has a right to it, but it feels distracting to me.
For my money, when you’re talking about the craft and philosophy of writing, faith just gets in the way. This belief is probably tied to my deeply held belief that most writers are far too wishy-washy when it comes to thinking and talking about the act of writing, and that if we want to improve as writers, we should pay way less attention to inspiration and affirmation and way more attention to our habits and our depth of focus. And also to my belief that faith gets in the way of most things. Or maybe it’s a part of my bigger weariness with our nation’s God-Industrial Complex. We live in a culture of Presumed Belief, and I’ve grown sosotired of being forced to break people I really like’s God-Fearing hearts every single time I admit that I am not a believer. Not even a little bit. That sad, sad look! Like you told them you just ran over their puppy. Like you said unicorns didn’t exist. Like you will not be spending eternity exchanging congratulatory high fives with them at a Magical Thumping 24-7 Sky Party, because you aren’t invited, because you didn’t click your heels together and just believe for Christ’s Sake! Ugh.
What I do respect about Lamott (besides just about everything non-Jesusy in “Bird by Bird”) is that she isn’t overly overly pushy about the God stuff. But it’s there. It’s definitely there. And Lamott takes an unmistakable pride in the fact that she has brought many abiding skeptics to Jesus throughout the course of her writing and teaching career.
A long time ago, a writer friend who shares my secularist bent made a similar claim about conversions, albeit her ministering seems to come about from the other end, almost as if by accident. This friend made the following observation about her relationship with Jesus: she doesn’t believe in him herself, but she’s found that she has a strange knack for bringing others to him, for helping them to believe, and because of that, she feels that she and Jesus have a sort of understanding. Her confession struck me as so honest and so profound that I’ve never forgotten it.
Sometimes, we aren’t the starring act. Sometimes, we’re just the conduits through which inspiration jumps from one squishy sentient form to another instead. Conductors for the pulse and flow of Life Force in all its mysterious and mystical forms, Benevolent God or none.
I’m cool with that. I don’t regret recommending Lamott and “Bird by Bird” to all the people I’ve recommended her/it to. And there have been more than a few.
All the same, a few years back, after I lent out that old, well-loved college copy of “Bird” to a journalist acquaintance and then fell out of touch with her, I sensed instinctively that I would never replace it, that the gap on my bookshelf would stay a gap until some other thing came along that seemed worthy enough to replace it. Not because I don’t appreciate what I’ve learned from Anne Lamott. Not because it didn’t matter a lot, or because she doesn’t seem like the kind of person you’d want in your corner in an Existential Boxing Match, cheering and cussing you on.
Only because Jesus is for other people. Because gaps don’t bother me too very much. Because I’ve grown accustomed to and even inspired by doubt. Because a draught of mercy, in whatever which-way it comes to you, always feels pretty damned good.
Don’t be mad, OK, Anne?