This is one of the many phrases that I scribbled down on my notepad, barely able to see in the dark theater, as I sat next to two dear friends last month listening to the wise and funny writer Anne Lamott. Over an hour and a half she talked about mercy, hope, and writing. Anne describes herself as a devout Christian and although I am atheist I find her reflections on love and faith accessible and uplifting. Her advice about writing I could listen to all day, or at least until I was so inspired I had to leave to go write.
I first came across Anne (I love that my friend Becky calls her St. Anne; I can get on board with that) when I was pregnant with Dashiell. A few bloggers I followed recommended her book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year and, especially knowing that I was expecting a boy, I picked it up. I love the honesty about how hard the first year was for her, especially as a single mother, and how she captured poignancy and beauty alongside it. Later I read Bird By Bird: Some Instructions About Writing and Life. It's a book I love and mean to add to my small book collection. In the book she declares that everyone will write a "shitty first draft" (words of comfort that I have spoken to myself again, and again, and again), to stop romanticizing getting published, and to just sit down and write the next sentence. And then the next one. And the one after that.
For her event in Mesa, Anne spoke and then took several audience questions (which we were able to submit through an app which was so cool!). The audience was mostly women, most older and with grey hair, and maybe because of being with so many people who looked like they could be grandmothers the large space felt more cozy than it should have. If you love Anne Lamott then it seems you are probably a person who wants to do better. Or who is trying to figure out how to create good and put it into the world. I told Erica and Becky that I wished we could send a message to the audience to see who else lived in our area and start a little Lamott fan club and general life support group.
On hope and mercy
Anne started by saying that she wanted to go ahead and address a question that she was sure many of us would have submitted. She didn't have to say the question out loud because we were all thinking it: how do we find hope and keep going forward at this time that can seen so dark, so scary? She said, "We don't give up," and later that "we can pivot away from fear and to mercy." I loved that she described showing kindness and love to one other person as a way to combat feelings of overwhelm. Which reminds me of the quote, "action is the antidote to despair." She said simply that we can "bring hope" and to "feed people" – and that there are many kinds of food. I love that.
Anne talked about her own tendencies to want to control things and about all the good ideas she has for how other people can be better. We have to remember in these moments to "look at our own emotional acre." And remember that "help is the sunny side of control" and we might need to layoff trying to be so helpful.
On aging and being critical of our own reflections, she encouraged us instead to say, "This is what being alive looks like" to our reflections. How lucky we are to be experiencing being alive!
Although much of what she said about writing is captured in Bird by Bird and a wonderful audio recording Word by Word I didn't mind rehearing any of it. I loved it in fact. I love being reminded that the truest advice about writing is just that you have to show up. And keep showing up. "Stop not writing!" she told us. So true. "Can you give me 45 minutes?" she asked. Because if you really want to do something you can find 45 minutes in a day. And when you do find a chunk of time she doesn't promise that the next great American novel will spill from your fingers. In fact, "it will go badly" she counsels.
To hear a successful writer admit to producing shitty first drafts and writing sessions that produce nothing but crap is like a warm cozy blanket to me. Because it's so attainable! To keep your writing spirits up she told us to stick to short assignments. Don't sit down to write a book. Sit down to write a sentence, a paragraph. If that goes okay then write another one. And keep going. As far as what to write she says simply to "write what you'd like to come upon."
After the event we were able to meet Anne and have books signed. I didn't have a book to get signed but asked her to sign the notes that I had taken. I told her I was working on a shitty first draft of my own and that I appreciated the permission to do that. "Good for you," she said.