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When I started working at a small local independent bookstore 17 years ago (still there!), I soon learned that even though I considered myself fairly well-read, there were many, many authors yet to discover. Part of my job is to suggest books to purchase, so I simply had to dive in and start reading even more. My fellow employees began to make suggestions, and, happily, one of the first must-read authors mentioned was Anne Lamott—and I’ve been reading her ever since.
Anne Lamott was born in San Francisco and lived with her family in Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge. She attended avant-garde grade schools and was from early years surrounded by relatives who were avid readers. She describes her parents as being “Cheever-esque”—hard drinkers, smokers, liberal, supporters of civil rights and Dr. King. She adored them both. Her father, Kenneth Lamott, a writer, tutored her from childhood in the writing process and its necessary discipline, setting the groundwork for her love of words and writing. But her parents’ lifestyle certainly proved to be damaging to her even early on.
Lamott attended college for only two years, dropping out to write and to experiment with drugs and alcohol, which was a natural segue, considering her upbringing. She was writing something every day and getting completely drunk at night. Talent was not a problem, as she had had several novels published during this time, although not to great acclaim. Depressed and discouraged, Lamott continued to drink and abuse drugs until one day, hungover, she discovered a local flea market near the houseboat she was living on and heard beautiful gospel music drawing her into St. Andrews Presbyterian Church nearby. Looking for purpose and meaning in her life, she began stopping by from time to time, and this tiny African-American church welcomed her with open arms, offering her something she had never experienced—true acceptance. Her conversion marked the beginning of her sobriety and of writing the amazing essays of her journey from then on. It is somewhat ironic that she gravitated to the Presbyterian church, as her father, considering himself to be much too sophisticated to be involved in organized religion, referred to them as “God’s frozen people.”
Two years sober, Lamott discovered that, at age 35, she was pregnant, and there was no hope of the father’s support, as he was a married man. Her church and friends rallied around, and she gave birth to a son, Sam, and later published a book entitled Operating Instructions, which was a journal of her pregnancy and parenthood with all the joy, pain and exhaustion that entails. This well received book was the beginning of a new way of writing for her. Additionally, with Operating Instructions, she was finally willing to make her conversion to Christianity public and, by doing so, acquired a completely new group of fans who adored her for her imperfections, self-deprecation and honesty.
I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation…wonder, craziness–and that can make me laugh. Books, for me, are medicine.–Anne Lamott
Following Operating Instructions, she published the book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which has become a go-to manual and detailed guide for beginning writers. The Los Angeles Times called it “a warm, generous and hilarious guide through the writer’s world and its treacherous swamps.” It continues, many years later, one of her best- selling books.
One constant throughout Lamott’s life has been the comfort and absolute necessity of books and reading.
I am one of Anne Lamott’s unabashed fans and have been fortunate enough to hear her speak, but I must admit that her non-fiction books are more to my liking than her novels. It would be a mistake to classify her books as only religious, as her essays are as much about human nature and the ofttimes emotional toll daily life exacts from all of us. I find myself saying as I read–“Yeah!”or “I’ve felt that way, too!” Her accessibility is her strength—she doesn’t mince words and isn’t afraid to toss in the odd obscenity if it makes her point. She is still a self-described “left wing hippie type” and marvels at how her life has taken such a turn in the last 25 years. Having published another six books in that time, Lamott seems a little surprised at how everything has worked out so well.
I recommend Anne Lamott’s books to everyone—do you have an author you like to share with others? Is the religious angle off-putting to you?