Anne Lamott's recovery from alcoholism and drug abuse helped her career in two ways. First, it marked an artistic rebound for the novelist; second, she's become an inspirational figure to fans who have read her frank, funny nonfiction books covering topics from motherhood to religion to, yes, fighting for sobriety.
Early on, Lamott's hard-luck novels were impressive chronicles of family strife punctuated by bad (but often entertaining) behavior. Everyone in Lamott's books is sort of screwed up, but she stocks them with a humor and core decency that make them hard to resist. In Hard Laughter, she tells the (semi-autobiographical) story of a dysfunctional family rocked by the father's brain tumor diagnosis. In Rosie and its 1997 sequel, Crooked Little Heart, the heroines are a sassy teenage girl and her alcoholic, widowed mom. Another precocious child provides the point of view in All New People, in which a girl rides out the waves of the 1960s with her nutty parents.
Lamott's conversational, direct style and cynical humor have always been strengths, and with All New People -- the first book she wrote after getting sober -- she turned a corner. Reedeming herself from the disastrous reviews of her messy (too much so, even for the endearingly messy Lamott) 1985 third novel Joe Jones, Lamott's talent came back into focus. "Anne Lamott is a cause for celebrations," the New Yorker effused. "[Her] real genius lies in capturing the ineffable, describing not perfect moments, but imperfect ones...perfectly. She is nothing short of miraculous."
That said, Lamott's sensibility is not for everyone. The faith, both human and spiritual, in her books is accompanied by her unsparing irony and a distinct disregard for wholesomeness or conventionality; and God here is for sinners as much as (if not more than) for saints. Her girls are often not girls but half-adults; her adults, vice-versa. She finds the adolescent, weak spots in all her characters, making them people to root for at the same time.
Among Lamott's most messy, troubled characters is the author herself, and she began turning this to her advantage with the 1993 memoir Operating Instructions, a single mom's meditation on the big experiment -- failures included -- of new parenthood. It was also in this book that Lamott "came out of the closet" with her Christianity, and earned a whole new following that grew with her subsequent memoirs, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and Traveling Mercies. However gifted Lamott was at conveying fictional stories, it was in telling her own stories that her self-deprecating humor and hard-earned wisdom really made themselves known, and loved by readers.
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Lamott's Joe Jones, which is now out of print, was so poorly received that it sent the alcoholic Lamott into a tailspin. "When Joe Jones came out I really got trashed," she told the New York Times in 1997. "I got 27 bad reviews. It was kind of exhilarating in its way. I was still drinking and I woke up every morning feeling so sick, I literally felt I was pinned to the bed by centrifugal force. I wouldn't have very many memories of what had happened the night before. I'd have to call around, and I could tell by people's reaction whether I'd pulled it off or not. I was really humiliating myself. It was bad."
Lamott's father was a writer who instilled the belief in her that it was a privilege in life to be an artist, as opposed to having a regular job. But she stresses to students that it doesn't happen overnight; that the work has to be measured in small steps, with continual efforts to improve. She said in an NPR interivew, "I've published six books and I still worry that the phone is going to ring and [someone] is going to say, 'Okay, the jig is up, you have to get a job..."'
In an essay accompanying Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Lamott described her decision to begin writing in earnest about Christianity: "Thirteen years ago, I first lurched -- very hung over -- into a little church in one of the poorest communities in California. Without this church, I do not think I would have survived the last few years of my drinking. But even so, I had written about the people there only in passing. I did, however, speak about the church whenever I could, sheepishly shoehorning in a story or two. But it wasn't really until my fifth book [Operating Instructions], that I came out of the closet as a real believer.... I started to realize that there was a great hunger and thirst for regular, cynical, ragbag people to talk about God..."
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In 1999, Anne Lamott discussed spirituality and her book Traveling Mercies with Barnes & Noble.com.
In Traveling Mercies you are extremely successful at communicating the everyday occurrences of spirituality. But you write the book as a Christian. Did you write it for
Christians? How universal is your God?
My God is so universal that it's mind-blowing. I just wrote it for everybody. I mean, I
happen to be a Christian, but I know that there is one God. People worshipping goodness
and love and kindness and truth are worshipping the same God. I didn't write it as a
Christian treatise. God knows, I have never had an interesting theological thought or
position, so there aren't any in the book. It's really about God, you know, goodness,
kindness, a power greater than ourselves. I happen to be a devout,
born-again Christian, so what are you going to do?
You're talking about the goodness of God. There are times in the book where miracles
occur. You talk about your recovery from bulimia as a miracle, and there's an incredible
scene where you and your son Sam are in the sea surrounded by hundreds of dolphins, which
also seems like a miracle. Do you remember having moments like that, great, good moments,
before you found God? Once you found God, how did the meaning of those moments change?
First of all, I always believed in God. As a young child I believed in God. I wasn't a
Christian until I was 31. I'm going to be 45 soon. I always believed that there was more
here than met the eye, and that there was something bigger and more tender behind the
scenes, which even as a young child I experienced as not being very tender or very
coherent, or certainly not very touching.
I became a Christian before I got sober, so I certainly had a lot of druggie times,
times on psychedelics and in the morning after a long cocaine or methedrine binge, where
the world shimmered with a kind of light. But it was not always there for very long, and
it didn't really hold up to much scrutiny, because it was probably chemical in nature, or
else I was tapping into another world or another plane of existence or something. But
because I converted before I stopped taking drugs, I had this wonderful year or so of
believing in God, in really having a personal connection with God, and at the same time
being stoned a lot. It was wonderful, because I sort of tripped out a lot on me and God,
like it was Casper the Friendly Ghost, and we were kind of together at dawn taking
cocaine or whatever I happened to be using that day.
But since I got sober and clean, which was 1986, I have seen what I would call
miracles, not in the Medujigore sense or Lourdes sense but in the sense of things
happening that really simply couldn't, that were just too good to imagine happening. I
was so stuck in my bulimia. I was so locked into the obsessive madness and grip of an
eating disorder and distorted body image that I believed I could never get free, and I
had tried everything. Then, all of a sudden, it was lifted. I eat like a pretty normal
person; I stay about the same, and I don't binge and I don't purge. I know I couldn't get
to there from where I was, so I feel like something lifted me up and carried me.
Where is religion when there is no hardship? What role does it play in a life
where trouble isn't looming or knocking on the door?
I think that trouble's looming in most lives. I don't think drugs and alcohol and bulimia
are any tougher than what most people are dealing with who are not addict types. Life is
really pretty tricky, and there's a lot of loss, and the longer you stay alive, the more
people you lose whom you actually couldn't live without. I don't know a life that I would
say is easy on the inside. I know lots of people who are not addicts who have lots of
money and happy marriages or seemingly happy marriages. I would say
these lives are very hard and very frightening. It's terrifying to be a human on the
earth, to give your heart over so entirely to a few people, and to take the risk of
losing them. So I don't know those lives that you describe. I think that when things are
going very well, when you're on a roll, you know that it will pass and that there's
another side coming, because that's the nature of life; but that it's really easy to
believe in God, to feel very blessed, and to have a great deal of faith and confidence
that one is safe and protected beyond all imagining, because I think that's our reality.
That's another thing I hope to do in the book: to help people understand how really safe
they are, how really protected
and loved and chosen they are, as seen through this one woman's perspective.
Sam is growing up with much more of a formal spiritual life than you
Or more of an at-home one, because I found it in other homes.
Do you think that he won't find faith because it's been handed to him on a platter?
That life hasn't been handed to him on a platter, though, is the point. He's been
raised in a religious house, and he assumes that the Jesus stuff is true the way he
assumes that gravity is going to hold up over time. I believe that he will leave the
church and leave Christianity for a time, and I don't know if he will come back. I assume
that like most healthy kids, he will have to reject a lot of it, if not most of it. But
he has had unbelievable challenges in his life. He has had unimaginable loss. He has had
several people that he absolutely adores die already. That's what I mean: Nobody gets off
here. We have a very tiny house, these ratty, used pets, and it's all kind of funky here.
But you take a gorgeous child in a very affluent, privileged home, with parents and a
healthy, committed marriage, and you can't make a case for the fact that this child is
having an easy time of it. It's just hard.
A funny line in the book comes when one of the mothers says that Sam doesn't seem to like
schoolwork very much, and you write that you want to scream, "No, but he makes
inventions, you dumb slut, out of garbage. While your kid is an obsequious
little Type A suck." This isn't what people usually think of when they think of
born-again Christians. Has anyone reacted negatively to the spirituality you represent?
The people at my church don't sound like that either, I want to make it clear. They're
all really lovely and soft-spoken good people. I can only tell the truth in my own voice.
I can only tell the truth as I understand the directive inside me to do that. Part of
what I have to offer is that I can be funny, and I can take this stuff that there's
usually a lot of hush and reverence around and do my take on it. For you to say that it
doesn't sound like a born-again Christian -- we would all agree with that, because
born-again Christians seem to be part of the Moral Majority. The right wing in America
has appropriated the Bible and its teachings for its own political purposes, but it
doesn't have to do with what's real.
In the book you say that you're "probably about three months away from slapping an
aluminum Jesus-fish" on the back of your car. Have you done it yet?
Oh, this is so awful, this is going to make no one ever buy my books again. It's going to
show what a fly-by-night, watery faith I have, but I did put a Jesus fish on our very
old, funky Volkswagen convertible. I put a fish on because someone sent me one. I didn't
actually have to go buy it, which would have put me over the edge, to sneak into the
Christian general store to buy one. Then, see, cheap slut that I am, when I was trying to
sell the car, I took it off. I thought, Only Christians will want this car. Then I
thought, I'm like Peter when the cock crows three times, and all three times he denies
ever having heard of Jesus: "No, no, I don't think so.... No, never heard of the guy...."
And the car didn't sell. I should probably go buy another one.
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