Late to Lamott

Finished Bird by Bird. Why did I not read this 20 years ago when it first came out?

Well, I know why. Because everybody was reading it. Because I’m about Anne Lamott’s age, and I was mad that she was getting all that attention, and not me. Why her?

Now I see why. She’s four years older than I am, but about 150 years more mature. Wise, kind, humble, fierce, hilarious. She wields the sword of truth and sometimes roasts marshmallow on it. Everyone who writes or wants to write should read this book.

Bird by Bird addresses both the benefits and the risks of truth-telling. This was of great interest to me, because I have been burned a few times by the risks. I loved this story: Lamott’s father once published a scorchingly honest essay about the community where he and his family lived. Not only did the family not get run out of town, not only did her father survive the storm of disapproval the piece sparked, but he actually received genuine thanks from some of the people he’d so unflinchingly described.

Close attention can be a gift. Lamott talks about how the stories she told about her grade school classmates made them feel larger than life. I know that’s how I and my sibs felt when my father told stories about us at the dinner table, making guests or relatives laugh. With the spotlight suddenly on us, we realized that–oh wow!–we were noteworthy, significant. Or at least cute. I know that often when I write it’s an attempt to express reverence for the friend or the everyday object in front of me. It’s a way of showing I don’t take what I’m looking at for granted. It’s a way of trying to capture and share what I see.

But what about telling stories that are less than complimentary? I once wrote a story about my grandmother’s death that made my father furious. (Luckily it got published before he saw it, or I probably would have burned it and buried the ashes.) In retrospect, I admit that my approach to creating the story left something to be desired. It was furtive. Critical. Passive-aggressive. I recorded descriptions and snippets of dialog without letting people know what I was doing—it felt a bit like stealing. I wrote down all the things my dad and grandfather did that outraged me without ever confronting them directly. I think in some ways I set myself up for the painful experience I had when my father finally saw the piece.

But I was telling the truth as I saw it.

Lesson: It’s best to work openly, and with love. But if you want to be a truth-teller, you have to be brave, and you have to have conviction, because you never know how people will respond to what you say. Still, says Lamott, if you’re a writer, it’s not your business to sweep the truth under a rug.

She encourages people to write about wrongs they’ve suffered, to write stories with villains. Go ahead, she says, even if the “villains” are still living and happen to be your benign elderly parents whom you no longer want to demolish—may now even enjoy. Be sure to change your villains’ names and personal characteristics, she says, but don’t change your account of harm caused, havoc wreaked. Don’t change the story about the event that caused the damage. She doesn’t say it, but I infer: no damage, no drama. And no healing.

None of us are evil, but all of us commit evil acts, and in my opinion, that is why there are stories.[1] Stories are all about how to confront and deal with evil. Lamott contends that a writer’s job is to steer into the heart of emotion, and I think that means you have to write into the heart of what’s wrong, and imagine a way to truly right it.

So an aspiration this book leaves me with is to try to dig deeper with my pen, to scrape away the fear and politeness and apathy that are plastered over my raw wounds like dead leaves over a sewer drain, and to really look at what’s there. But not just to look and accuse. I want to look with loving intent at my life’s various train wrecks, ready to see my own role in the chaos. I want to never forget that I am my own best villain. I want to imagine redemption for everyone involved.

Lamott says, see your writing as a gift. Not just to those you’re writing about, but also to other writers whose work has helped and inspired and entertained you. This imaginary audience will draw the best possible work out of you, because of course you want to give those authors something worthwhile in return.

In addition to writing for my friends and family, I’ve been thinking about which authors I’d like to write a present for. First to mind: Lorrie Moore, Rick Moody, Louise Penny, Craig Johnson, Milan Kundera, Doris Lessing, Yogananda, Jesus—and obviously, Anne Lamott.


[1] I like Yogananda’s definition of evil in Divine Romance. He says, evil is anything that obstructs your path to God.


My basic premise is that every situation speaks, offering an infinite number of possible messages to anyone interested in decoding the content.  Further, it seems to me that the art of decoding is an undeniably literary practice–it involves metaphor, parable, analogy–and most of all, story.

For me, this spring’s most haunting story is the one about the American-based cruise ship that sailed within sight of three Panamanian fishermen dying of thirst and exposure, and did not change course.

My first reaction was to condemn the cruise ship and everyone on it (except maybe the three binocular-toting birdwatchers who spotted the tiny boat and tried to effect a rescue).  Then I thought, but what were the people inside the ship guilty of?  Oblivion?  How’s that any different from me–the way I can blithely ignore genocide and starvation, health epidemics and environmental disasters, just because they happen to be occurring at a comfortable distance?

The cruise ship strikes me as a perfect metaphor for the United States and those of us in it. Somebody else is steering.  The thing is massive and unwieldy, almost impossible to turn.  And the distractions on this ship are endless.

One day after the cruise ship forged past the tiny fishing boat, one of the men died.  The second man died a few days later.  Miraculously, the third man survived.  Listening to him describe their desperate attempts to get the cruise ship’s attention, I wondered what sort of story he would tell about the people on the boat.

For details, see NPR story by Greg Allen


This morning I heard a story about how a respected scientist is using the power of imagination and narrative to promote social welfare.*  It caught my attention because usually when I hear about those things, it’s in the context of new-agey attempts to further personal growth and achieve individual goals.  (Like my own website, to be honest.)  But now a retired Stanford Ph.D. is touting the practical utility of these “woo-woo” techniques, and attempting to use them to make the world a better place.

The man is Phil Zimbardo, the one who did the infamous Stanford prison guard experiment.**  He thinks he can teach students how, under pressure, to make the choice to “put their best self forward in service to humanity.”   At some point everybody breaks, but Zimbardo believes you can cultivate the tendency to break toward courage and compassion rather than toward cowardice, cruelty and conformity.   He thinks you can pave the way for those new choices by reading narratives about heroes, and imagining yourself behaving heroically.  He calls it “internalizing heroic imagination.”

I love that.

But there’s debate about whether it will work.  Another scientist quoted in the story, Augustine Brannigan, is of the opinion that brains are hard-wired, and that just because you teach somebody a story about a hero doesn’t mean they’ll be able to behave like a hero at the next available opportunity.

Sadly, I sort of agree with that.

After decades of working with a whole raft of techniques to try to change my own character flaws (I tend to be pessimistic, defeatist, fearful, and shy) I can respect the difficulty of changing your basic nature.  Maybe you can’t.  The pessimistic view would seem to be supported by the fact that when a brawl broke out in the hallway outside Zimbardo’s heroism class, the heroism students let a teacher call the police rather than rushing out to break it up and save the day.  Maybe the brains of heroes really do fire differently, and most of us just aren’t heroes.

Yet hard-wired or not, I remain convinced that narrative is a huge factor in how we create and integrate personal identity, in how we find our way forward on our unique paths.  Twenty-some years ago I was a sulky secretary in downtown Seattle, chafing in the face of what appeared to be an incredibly dismal and meaningless future.  My everyday brain couldn’t see any way out.  But I daydreamed.  I journaled.  I certainly didn’t imagine that I was a hero, but I did dream of contributing to the wellbeing of others in some way, of exploring the realm of the psyche, of cultivating spiritual awareness.  And now I find myself working as a teacher and writer and living in spiritual community.

Maybe our basic natures, including both gifts and flaws, are indeed hard-wired–genetically bestowed and reinforced by upbringing and environment.  But we do have the choice to try to suppress the flaws and coax the gifts to their fullest and most positive expression, and I’m with Dr. Zimbardo:  I think stories and imagination can help us to do that.


*For details, see this NPR story by Amy Standen:


** When college students pretended over a period of weeks to be prisoners and prison guards, the guards became so brutal and sadistic that the experiment had to be aborted.  The experiment suggests that people will learn to do terrible things in order to conform.  But Zimbardo apparently believes that people can also learn to do good.