Thursday, February 22, 2007

An Afternoon with Anne Lamott

Ah, my 100th post! This is an excellent way to celebrate it -- my notes from the interview with Anne Lamott from yesterday. I attended with dear poets Kitty and Judith, and we thoroughly enjoyed Anne's humor and truthtelling. Here are my notes:

Yesterday, I attended the Writer's Symposium by the Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University, in which Anne Lamott was the keynote speaker. My former creative writing prof and later office mate, Dean Nelson, interviewed Anne. Dean is a dry-wit kind of guy, and their rapport was beautiful. I thought him a little stilted with Kathleen Norris a few years ago, but he was in his element with Donald Miller last year and with Anne yesterday.

Anne walked onto the stage, her dreadlocks bound by a scarf behind her ears and wearing an aqua cardigan, a white t-shirt, and faded jeans, with black tennis shoes and purse. She talked much more about writing than about faith, a fact she made fun of. "Everyone wants me to talk about fffaaaiiiittthhh, but talking about writing is refreshing!" Dean challenged her with a comment he had overheard at a recent venue in which Anne was featured: "Anne Lamott is the only Christian writer who has ever told me the truth." She spoke about writing the truth about her own heart, her own sin, her own ungraciousness, her own family, and getting that "me, too" response from her audience. She said that she was such a bad Christian, and other "bad" Christians find the truth about losing your temper with your kid, wishing your teenager to the outer limits, getting mad about politics, very refreshing because they feel the same. She tells the truth about being a "flawed, conflicted" person, whether in her novels or in her nonfiction. Her characters are "fearfully human," and she talked about the "false starts and messes" that are part of the writing process. She says that we have too precious and short a time on earth to deal with annoying people.

It takes her two years to write a non-fiction book, and three years to write fiction. Her book coming out next month is her 11th, and it wasn't until her 6th book that she could support herself on her writing alone. She only really loves the second and third drafts of writing. She spoke about the three levels of writing, from her book Bird by Bird:
1) down draft: awful, terrible first draft writing when you get it all on the table -- like beating a dead horse for every detail. Painful to do.
2) updraft: edit a third out of first draft, play with it, shape it.
3) dental draft: crafting each "tooth" to make sure it's strong, necessary, will hold weight.

She's starting a novel in May. First of all, you must, she says, start a book on a Monday. Just like it's stupid to start a diet on a Thursday, it's ridiculous to start a book on any other day but a Monday. Each book is a complete starting over. She loves books about good and evil, like The Stand. She talked about being part of the goodness, one day at a time. She goes through the same creative process everyone does to write a book -- she hates the first draft, dealing with the blank page, and she hates the fourth draft, when she's getting sick of it. She spoke about how the accolades of speaking at PLNU, with all her fans, will last her until she's barely home tonight, and then her self-pity will kick in. Pressure of success.

She was hilarious in talking about flying. She said that ALL flights are bad, and she's exhausted every time by the sheer willpower she has to exert to keep the plane in the air. And the guilt she feels in taveling first class......

Why did she keep writing when she wasn't making enough to live on? She felt she had something to say and a voice to say it. One book was about her dad's death -- it was irreverent and real and spoke truth. From Plan B : "Laughter is carbonated holiness." The funny and the sad pass each other often within the same paragraph in her writing. It's all about truth -- telling the truth. "Stories feed us in a way that nothing else can." She wrote non-fiction to help people get their sense of humor back. Faith is being "given a little light to see by each day, someone we can walk along with." Jesus helps us to find true nourishment. In her pastor's last sermon, she was talking about how the slaves would eat what no one else would, especially the neck bones and the ham bones. They would suck and suck on those bones until they had every possible morsel of nourishment from them. That's what faith was to them -- not just an opiate but a "recipe for liberation."

She responded to a question about how her family feels about her writing so honestly about them. She thinks before she writes, "would Sam [her son] be glad I published this?" Now that he's older, she passes it by him. There was one story in the new book about her slapping him one day, and she ended up revising it several times until it passed his muster. His friends love the "Sam stories." She wrote very nicely about her mother for a long time, but had to write the truth about their relationship (rather rocky) sometime before her mother died (the story about going to the beach in Traveling Mercies, I believe). And the story hurt her mother terribly, and it took the rest of the extended family almost two years before they forgave Anne. She quipped at the end, "If people don't want you to write about them, they should behave better." She softened and said that if you can't tell the truth in non-fiction, then use fiction, changing just enough so the person isn't readily recognizable to everyone else. "Everything that has happened to you is YOURS; you own it."

At the end she talked some politics -- her parents has been "virulent liberals" but without faith, so they were just angry all the time. She struggles with anger about the war, but as she wrote in Plan B and discussed today, she wonders if Bush knows what we don't, and therefore we have been protected in ways we'll never know. She tries to see fairly, but it's hard, says she.

It was a delightful 90 minutes, and it flew all too quickly. I had a lovely time, visiting with former colleagues from the literature department and enjoying my own dear friends, both quite amazing poets, who accompanied me. I'm looking forward to Friday's lecture with Eugene Peterson, who translated The Message. Aaah, to feel like a "real" writer again!

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