Unflinching honesty and "friendly yet firm" self-discipline are two key traits shared by successful writers, author Anne Lamott told the audience at Occidental College’s Thorne Hall on Tues., Oct. 2 as the first speaker in the College’s First Tuesdays series.
The best-selling writer of six novels and five nonfiction books gave the audience a dose of the tough-yet-whimsical truthfulness for which her works are known. Her advice to those seeking a literary and/or spiritual life ranged from the practical ("always carry a pen") to the more esoteric ("God doesn’t have a magic wand").
Lamott’s first books were hard-luck novels of family strife punctuated by bad yet entertaining behavior. In her later nonfiction works she tackled such topics as motherhood, religion, and her struggles with alcoholism and drug abuse. (The single mother gained sobriety 21 years ago and became a devout Presbyterian.)
The New Yorker called Lamott "a cause for celebrations" after the publication of "All New People" in 1999. "[Her] real genius lies in capturing the ineffable, describing not perfect moments, but imperfect ones...perfectly."
Wearing loose-fitting, faded jeans, a black tank and beige cardigan, the self-deprecating Lamott, 53, described her process of creation as one in which she often feels "overwhelmed…a mess."
"Where do I start? No one is there to tell you you’re on the right track….It’s just you and your instincts and your intuition." She said she tackles the problem by being strict with herself: "I sit there. I keep my butt in my chair." And, as described in her book on writing, "Bird by Bird" (last summer’s frosh reading assignment), she said she breaks each book down into small assignments, like "quilt pieces" or "mosaic chips." "All I have to figure out is the next right thing," she said.
"Everything I know about faith applies to writing," she continued, sharing lessons from one of her other favorite topics, spirituality. "It’s OK not to know more than you do. Other people are as clueless as you are." In writing, as in living a spiritual life, the key is to be as real as you can rather than trying to please other people, the self-described "worrier" said.
If you are truthful as a writer, your readers will pick up on that authenticity and won’t be able to put the book down. "We’re desperate for a little real here and there. There’s so little of it in modern culture," she said, after admitting that she sometimes writes on her hand while walking her dog.
The most important thing a person can do, she continued, "is just stop. Slow down….Try to figure out one thing every day that you’re not going to do. Learn to say no. If you want to be an artist, or you want to have a spiritual life, you’ve got to find some time….The truth of art, and the truth of faith, is there’s not a shortcut to it. There’s just the plod."
She saved perhaps her most important piece of advice for the end of her talk: "You no longer have to help people move after the age of 40. You’ve helped enough."
Lamott then signed books in the Thorne lobby, and afterward headed to the Clapp Library to help kick off the College’s Banned Books Week event, a marathon reading of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."