The writer Anne Lamott was deemed an oversensitive child, one with a heightened awareness of and vulnerability to the world around her—and yet she went on to prove that what society dubs a weakness can in fact be the raw materials of a brilliant career and life.
Moreover, she shows there’s beauty in the cracks: “My heart was always a big, open heart, and the world and my parents and my teachers and the culture didn’t succeed in closing that, for which I am deeply grateful. And the places that were closed off were cracked back open by hardship and loss and grief, and for that I’m deeply grateful. I love and often quote that wonderful Leonard Cohen song that says, ‘There are cracks, cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets in.’ Any light that has come through me that I feel like communicating to my readers came through me in spite of everybody’s efforts to keep you quiet and looking good and achieving more.”
As for her craft, it does not come easily to her; she hacks through draft after draft after draft, carving a mountain with a pocket knife—proving that even for someone considered a master creative, the work does not always emerge fully formed.
Through it all, perhaps her most important lesson, simply, is this: A creative life is best lived on its own terms.
As a purveyor of words, Lamott’s tend speak for themselves. So here is a collection of 19 of our favorite Anne Lamott quotes, drawn largely from her books.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
“This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.” (Bird by Bird)
“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” (Bird by Bird)
“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen.” (Bird by Bird)
“I had to stop living unconsciously, as if I had all the time in the world. The love and good and the wild and the peace and creation that are you will reveal themselves, but it is harder when they have to catch up to you in roadrunner mode. So one day I stopped. I began consciously to break the rules I learned in childhood: I wasted more time, as a radical act. I stared off into space more, into the middle distance, like a cat. This is when I have my best ideas.” (Oprah)
“Life is a precious, unfathomably beautiful gift. … And it [is] filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.” (Facebook/Salon)
“It’s good to do uncomfortable things. It’s weight training for life.” (Plan B)
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life. … I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” (Bird by Bird)
“Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.” (Operating Instructions)
“I’m here to be me, which is taking a great deal longer than I had hoped.” (Plan B)
“It’s such a relief when people tell the truth. I know it is for me in that when I read a book, when somebody is really just putting their cards on the table, and especially if they can make me laugh about it, I feel grateful in the same way I am grateful for the ocean.” (PBS)
“This is our goal as writers, I think: to help others have this sense of—please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious. Try walking around with a child who’s going, ‘Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky!’ And the child points and you look, and you see, and you start going, ‘Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at the scary dark cloud!’ I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world—present and in awe.” (Bird by Bird)
“Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole.” (Plan B)
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” (Facebook/Salon)
“Life is like a nice fresh batch of Swiss cheese. Note to self: Savor the holes, too, like the spaces between musical notes.” (Some Assembly Required)
“I think that is why we stay close to our families, no matter how neurotic the members, how deeply annoying or dull: because when people have seen you at your worst, you don’t have to put on the mask as much.” (Traveling Mercies)
“We aren’t a drop in the ocean, but are the ocean, in drops.” (Some Assembly Required)
“I thought the secret of life was obvious: Be here now, love as if your whole life depended on it, find your life’s work, and try to get hold of a giant panda.” (Hard Laughter)
“If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. We become like mushrooms, living in the dark, with poop up to our chins. If you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. You’re saying: Leave me alone; I don’t mind this little rathole. It’s warm and dry. Really, it’s fine. When nothing new can get in, that’s death. When oxygen can’t find a way in, you die. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing—we had this all figured out, and now we don’t. New is life.” (Help Thanks Wow)
“These are the words I want on my gravestone: that I was a helper, and that I danced.” (Grace, Eventually)
Debbie Millman: Anne Lamott covers some big topics in her writing. Alcoholism and drug addiction, single motherhood, faith and depression, just to name a few. Yet she does it with grace and humor, and book by book she has built a large audience of dedicated fans, including me. Some of my favorite of her books include Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Stitches, A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. Her most recent book is titled Almost Everything, Notes on Hope. And if there's something we need right now, more than anything, it's hope. Anne Lamott, welcome to Design Matters.
Anne Lamott: Thank you, I'm so glad to be here.
Debbie: Anne, since you're so known for your literary fiction and your brilliant, soulful, nonfiction, I think some people might be surprised to learn that every Thursday you go out and buy People magazine, US weekly and the National Enquirer?
Anne: Well, in my own defense, I have stopped reading the National Enquirer and US. I mostly just get People.
Debbie: What is it about that particular publication that you like so much?
Anne: I just love gossip, you know, and I just love to get lost and to have kind of an hour off reading about the Kardashians. It's like having a big bowl of Cheetos on the page.
Debbie: I understand. I absolutely love Cheetos. And I understand you also have a pension for reading true crime.
Anne: I do love true crime. Yes.
Debbie: What is it about it that appeals to you?
Anne: It's just so lurid and fun and escapist, but I also love to put it together. It's like watching a police procedural on TV. You know, it's fun to, like Agatha Christie, like just figuring out the clues. But there's some really brilliantly written true crime, in my own defense again.
Debbie: And you were born in San Francisco, the daughter of nonfiction writer and novelist Kenneth Lamott, and your mother, Dorothy, a journalist and lawyer. In the aforementioned Stitches, A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, you write this. "If you were raised in the 1950s or 1960s and grasped how scary the world could be in Birmingham, Vietnam, and the house on the corner where the daddy drank, you were diagnosed as being the overly sensitive child. There were entire books written on the subject of the overly sensitive child. What the term meant was that you noticed how unhappy or crazy your parents were. Also you worried about global starvation, animals at the pound who didn't get adopted, and smog. What a nut."
And you've described yourself as a sensitive child. What did you make of the particular world around you at that time?
Anne: Well, I held my breath. I just was so worried and I just came a certain way and that was pretty tightly wired. And so grownups were always helpfully saying that I should get thicker skin, i.e. be a completely different child than the one I was. And I had a big open heart and no one thought to say that's a beautiful way to be. And what instead, we were intellectuals, we were very snappy pieces of cheese and we were atheists. And so what I was encouraged to do was just figure things out, break the code and scoff at anybody with any religious faith or paths.
So what I did was I tried to just get through without being just destroyed by it all. I was really afraid of dinosaurs.
Anne: Because there wasn't that much on TV. But there were always a lot of shows that involved dinosaurs. And I just remember being terrified. I took my partner where I lived the other day near where I lived and I showed him the streets where I ran home, literally in terror, almost to the point of blacking out with adrenaline and fear because of the dinosaurs.
But I think they represented everything that was erratic and threatening to the life of a very small child at the time. Like some people might, some little kids might be afraid of dogs, but it's symbolic of everything red and toothy and scary about the world, which can be your own parents. And so I became a super achiever and that seemed to help everybody and it kept me from feeling too panicky most of the time because I studied and I achieved. And so I had a lot of tools. I learned a lot of tools for surviving in that kind of stress that you encounter in a really unhappy family. You make them happy. You become their flight attendant and you get them things and you become mommy's big girl helper and Daddy's wife. And so I had a lot of tools to bear.
I had migraines at five and that was very, very scary because you don't know if, you don't have migraines do you?
Debbie: I don't.
Anne: But you feel them, you send some coming, you can hear them coming. It's like having a mosquito in the room. And you don't have the vocabulary for it, but you just know. It's all over for England. You know, my mother's from Liverpool, so it was always being said that things were all over for England. And when I would get a migraine I'd have to lie on the floor with a tile floor in school or wherever you were. And that was humiliating, because people would always come in, you couldn't have the whole bathroom to yourself. So I was dancing as fast as I could, which I think brought on the migraines, to help mom and dad be happy and to raise my baby brother who's five years younger, and to do so, so, so well that I felt that I was of value. And I really had to unlearn all of these survival tools in order to have a rich and vibrant, vital sense of any immediacy at all in the world. Because I was always trying to stay one step ahead of the abyss.
Debbie: You've said that your parents were cold and remote and they spoke in clipped phrases ...
Anne: With each other. They were both warm. Everyone loved my parents. Yes.
Debbie: But with each other. And they spoke in clipped phrases of [inaudible 00:09:16] contempt for each other. What made you, or what do you think motivated you to become the overachiever as opposed to the self-destructor?
Anne: Well, I was both. I was two in one. I was an overachiever and everything I did was self destructive. I didn't know how to eat. I lived on sugar when I was small and tiny. And then when I became a teenager and I gained a bunch of weight and I became a girl, a fleshy, sturdy person, I started trying to diet. And then I became bulimic. I mean, it was really like a double life. Because I was a tennis star all through my teenage years and inside I just felt that I was insane or defective.
But everyone loved me too. I was raised by two parents that everyone loved and I made sure that everyone loved me, but you can get addicted to that. People pleasing, you know? I realized when I started being a public person, maybe when I was about 30, that there could be 100 people who love my work and come to hear a lecture or reading and one cranky guy whose wife had dragged him there and that would be all I could think about, like how can I get him to like me?
I had a lot of growing up to do and had a lot of healing to do. I got sober when I was 32, which was 32 years ago. And that was when I began to look at how hard I was on myself and how I was still holding my breath.
Debbie: As a writer, your dad hung out with other writers, and in one description that was both I think horrifying and in your way of trying to I think also be witty about your house back then. You've likened it to an advent calendar. And you said, "People used to come to our house and drink. You'd open a door and there'd be people passed out or the wrong people kissing each other. If we said anything to my parents, they'd say, oh honey, for Christ's sake, we'd all just been drinking." Given that role that it would play in your life later on, what did you make of all that frivolity at such a young age?
Anne: It didn't feel like frivolity to me. It was just terrifying to see Mandy's husband in our bathroom kissing Greg's father, or two men kissing. But I was raised to help everybody feel really great about being at our house. I was raised to be a great conversationalist. I was a reader, like you probably were at four or five, and I was saved and redeemed by books and if I could talk about books or talk about the National Geographic with grown ups and kind of keep them distracted from their efforts to feel alive and not has-beens and not used up, then everybody liked me and then mom and dad were happy and then there was this Reaganomic trickle down that the kids would be nourished and then we would all be okay for that night.
So I was raised by smart people to be an extremely smart, conversational presence at our house. And so it really seriously, it was like being an intellectual flight attendant. And I was really, really good at it, but now I still don't go out for dinner with people. Very rarely. Only my very best friends and Neil, or my brothers. Because I feel so much pressure to keep the conversation going because that was our job. And to make sure that everybody felt included and that you didn't overstep your bounds by talking about something intimate or real, but that you were charming and pleasing.
Debbie: I know when you were, I think about age six, you wanted to be Pippi Longstocking. How come?
Anne: She was free. Her father was the king of a cannibal island somewhere and I can't remember what happened to her mother, but she had a horse. Did you read them?
Debbie: I did. I wanted her braids. One Halloween I put wire in my braids to be Pippi Longstocking.
Anne: She had fabulous braids that stuck straight out.
Debbie: I thought it was clever.
Anne: Yes, it was. It really was. You did really well, Debbie. And she had one black sock and one brown sock and I often did too, but I didn't want to. I didn't mean to. We weren't on top of the laundry. We didn't have enough money. She had a monkey and she had a horse, was the monkey Mr Nelson? And she had a horse.
Debbie: And a great dress.
Anne: And a great dress and she just had such a joy for living an adventure. And she had everything I wanted to be. She just loved life. She was free and she was silly and she was adventurous and she was on top of her game.
Debbie: Now I understand that Madeline L'Engle's Wrinkle In Time changed your life.
Debbie: How so?
Anne: It was about children whose father was lost and it was about the search for truth and connection-
Debbie: And love.
Anne: And love. These strange too smart little children, these really sensitive, and the strange little brother was so funny. And it was about real stuff and it was also so spiritual. I mean her spiritual, Madeline L'Engle's stuff is so trippy and beautiful, both things. And the book was like that for kids and it was about strange little kids like me.
Debbie: You started writing around the age of seven or eight and one of your early works was a poem about the astronaut John Glenn. Your teacher read it aloud and looking back on it, you've said, "It was a great moment. The other children looked at me as though I had learned to drive." And your teacher submitted it to a collection and it won an award. And you saw your work in print for the very first time. Is that when you decided you wanted to be a writer?
Anne: I remember doing some writing for my dad. I remember being six and my dad sending me a postcard. He was traveling for some, probably Horizon, which was a travel magazine that was really big back then. And he sent me a picture of a snowy owl, a baby snowy owl. And he wrote- A chick, I guess you would call it. And he said, "Look at this funny little guy. Would you write me a story about him?" And so I did.
But also in school and in the blacktop and in classroom, I just had a gift. I could tell a story so that if the three of us were there and something happened on the blacktop, I would be the one that you would look to, you may have been too, to tell the story because I kind of plunge in somewhere and I would be able to organize some strange thing, like that somebody had stolen JB Halperin's lunch, you know, and everybody was just stunned and then the bad child had been taken off to the principal. I mean it was like, you know, Bay of Pigs or something. And I could tell the story. I just had a gift. I don't know, some kids are musical, which I wasn't. But I can tell you what I'd seen.
Debbie: As you were growing up, you mentioned that your parents were atheists and yet today you write often about your strong faith, which you said would horrify your father if he were still alive. And I understand that as a kid you would pray in secret? How did you find faith while growing up in the absence of it?
Anne: Well, one of the reasons my father hated Christians so much was that he'd been raised by Presbyterian missionaries, God's frozen chosen, they're called, in Tokyo, right after the first world war. And he just found them so cold and so without love, they didn't hold him and love him and tell him they loved him. So of course I ended up being a Presbyterian, but way after he died.
But, I always found religious families. My first best friend was the daughter of a Christian science healer. I just was so hungry and thirsty for that, for talk of love and God and that I was a precious and perfect child of God. That I was beautiful, which I didn't know, no one at our house thought that apparently. And I love the sacred ritual of Buddhists and Hindus. I just, something inside of me I ... It would be like being in Morocco and hearing an English language radio station. I just come alive and I'm so relieved to have this spiritual and sacred talk and ritual and instruction and scripture. I just always would feel both really relaxed and really enlivened upon hearing it.
So I always found religious friends, and we had a family that was Jewish that we were close to. It was kind of okay to be Jewish because you'd come that way, so you weren't judged harshly by my parents. And you could be Buddhist because so many of the great avant garde writers in the fifties, my dad worked at an avant garde magazine with [inaudible 00:18:02] in the late fifties and early sixties called Contact. It was okay to be Buddhist. And I really tried to be a Buddhist and to find my niche in the eastern traditions, but I accidentally ended up being a Christian.
Debbie: How did you come about that? What are your spiritual beliefs now?
Anne: I'm a Christian and I'm a ... So much of my training though has been acumenical that I'll just take truth wherever I can find it. I was really changed and blessed by Ram Dass when I was about 20, in his very early books. Be Here Now. I mean, I was in San Francisco for the sixties and Be Here Now had a huge impact on me. It blew my mind. I just grokked it. I went, yes.
Debbie: I met him once. My older cousin was a disciple student of his and she brought me to see him and he wasn't speaking at the time. He was just writing on the chalkboard. And he looked at me and wrote on the chalkboard "NY." I was like, wow, is it that obvious? I think I was 12, and he knew I was from New York. And I thought that was really special.
Anne: Yes, that sounds right. He was so funny and so honest and so neurotic. We, Neil and I heard him in Maui. We went to a retreat just a few months ago and his position was and is that he never got over a single neurosis. He's just who he is. But he learned to be a man of love and he learned to be a man of awareness. And his whole pitch was that we are loving awareness. Whoever you are, wherever you come from.
And I love, he said this so many years ago, but he said, "When all is said and done, we're really just walking each other home." And I live by that. It's in Almost Everything, but it's an almost probably the last five books because it helps me so much.
I remember going to see him and everybody was on the floor and it was just, it was like coming home. And it blew my mind in the best possible way, where it made everything, it made truth a lot more spacious than I'd known it to be. I thought, I was raised to believe that we were right and to study more so that you could be even more right. And that you could impress even cooler people and more educated people with how right you were and how brilliant. And he just gave me permission to breathe, to pay attention and breathe and love, and serve.
And that was kind of where a lot of my past really began, although I'd had a conversion of sorts and I went to Goucher in Maryland briefly-
Debbie: And you dropped out.
Anne: I dropped out at 19, to be a writer.
Debbie: And a tennis teacher.
Anne: And a tennis teacher, and a house cleaner. But I'd had a really profound, a couple of profound experiences at Goucher with spirituality and religion, but more than anything, more than even being a writer when I grew up, I wanted to not be a Christian. That was like the most important thing because of my parents and my love for my father. And then, a few years after he died, let's see, I think I was 31 because I found this church at 31 and converted drunk, and then I got sober the following year. So I had this kind of gap year.
But at 30 and 31 I was always hung over and I would go over to this flea market in this really poor part of town. I lived on a houseboat, literally no bigger than this office we're in, this studio that we're in. And I would go over and I'd hear a lot of black people and some white people singing songs that I recognized from the civil rights movement, from The Weavers and Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. And it was so beautiful, it was a funky little church with buckled linoleum. And so I started going over because I was just lost. And I'd get really greasy food at the flea market. Then I'd wander over. But they didn't hassle me. They didn't try to get me to take classes or to sign on. And they didn't come visit, which was really the most important part of it.
Little by little I just came to feel this love and affinity of Jesus and I finally just kind of got worn down by my own insanity and damage and self destruction and, I loved these people and they loved me. They just loved me and they just let me sit there and be there with them. They asked nothing of me and I caved.
Debbie: Do you think that that's ultimately what helped you become sober, to make the decision to become sober?
Anne: I'm not sure. I'm not sure because church didn't help me get sober, it really didn't. Jesus I really don't think helped me get sober. I think what helped was hitting a really catastrophic bottom and just being so sick and tired of being sick and tired. Every morning I wake up, I just go, oh my God. I was young, you know, so I could ... I would just have a little bit of speed or something. Take a hot shower and go for a run. And I was young enough that I could, and then I'd have a lot of coffee and smoke the non habit forming marijuana that I smoked everyday from the time I was about 14. And I could pull it off, and all of a sudden I couldn't really pull it off anymore.
I couldn't tell when I was going to have a blackout. Before they'd been every so often, and I was having more and more blackouts and just ... There's a line in Almost Everything, from a guy that got sober when I did, who said "He was deteriorating faster than he could lower his standards."
Debbie: I love that line.
Anne: It's a great line.
Debbie: Can I relate to that line.
Anne: I can relate to that too. And I got there and so I did what you do when you've run out of good ideas and you just can't bear it one more day. I called a friend who was sober, and I said, I think I need help.
Debbie: I'd like to read something that you said about, right before that moment where you realized, if you don't mind.
Debbie: This is what you've written. "I just got drunker and drunker and drunker for years." When something would happen, like when your third novel, Joe Jones came out in 1985 and didn't get great reviews, you'd escape into alcohol and this is what your rock bottom looked like. You've said "150 people had paid $20 to come to a fundraiser and hear me speak. I hadn't written the speech. I can't remember why. And I had a whole lot to drink. I was stoned too. I ordered another bottle, the guy poured it and came to 15 minutes later from a blackout. I was in the middle of this speech and I didn't know what I was saying."
Anne: It was just, I think there were actually more people there. It was a benefit for the San Francisco Public Library. And it was all, it was this literary gathering. And I came to onstage and I had just said that I dreamt of a colorblind world. Like I was channeling Martin Luther King. And then came to, I spritzed awake and then I said the only thing I could think of. I said, "How are we doing on time?" Because there were some hopes that I had delivered some sort of speech. And I got the hugest laugh of my career because the first thing I said was that I dreamt of a colorblind world. And the second thing was that, how are we doing on time? And people were just looking at me, you know, the color had drained from their face.
But that didn't stop me from drinking. I mean, I kept drinking for another couple years.
Debbie: You said that when you were drinking, "No matter how conceited you got, you'd still have the self esteem of a pig. I knew that I had a dark secret life out there in the world doing really weird stuff and it was taking a toll on my soul." How did you come out of that? What was the sense of hope that you had at that time that you could be different?
Anne: Well, I still live in the same county where I was born, so I was just, all my relatives, all my cousins, my brothers, my mom, my uncles and aunts were all there. So I was loved out of all sense of proportion. I'd had three books out. I had a really early career. I had done really well for my age and had three books out I think by 30 or something. And so I had all this stuff that was working and the surface was great. I was young and I was funny and I was adorable and everyone loved me. So I had that going.
And then on the inside I just was, it was Swiss cheese. I was just full of holes. In the Christian tradition they'd call it sin sick. I just had terrible choices, and I was drunk every night. So I had these two different worlds I was inhabiting and, but the world where I was loved and appreciated and esteemed and publishing and running and playing tennis, that was working. So it just kept me ... It wasn't hope exactly, but it just kept making it possible for me to lurch forward, you know.
And then when you're an alcoholic and or a drug addict, you're always explaining things to yourself of how things got away from you and how tonight you're definitely going to just stick to beer and how you're only going to drink beer during the week. You're only going to ... And you don't even make it through the first night. But then, from [inaudible 00:27:19], I was saying I had this faith and this path of seeking spiritual truth wherever I could find it. So I had God and I had goodness and I had the beginnings of believing that I was loved even though my life was so crazy, even though I was having tiny boundary issues with men and other people's men. It was in public a lot, really drunk. But I'm pretty charming for the first couple of hours. I'm very funny and I don't feel shy and self conscious. And then things would get away from me.
But I'd always ended up at home. At some point people would put me to bed and I wake up in the mornings were what was so [inaudible 00:28:00] and I didn't have any hope.
Debbie: I read that you didn't want to get sober.
Anne: Oh of course I didn't want to get sober. I loved being drunk. I loved drinking. I loved smoking weed. I loved speed. I did a ton of meth. I weighed no pounds, which I really liked. You know, I weighed 25 pounds less than I do now. And I just loved being stoned. I've had the feeling that I was really connecting with God. I took a lot of acid. It was the way I actually found God was drugs.
And when you're drunk or when you're stoned and you're embarrassing yourself or your family, it's like you sit down with the disease and you chat with the disease about the disease and you kind of neck with the disease and you realize that other people are trying to control you and then you become bitter and resentful and then you drink because they're stupid and they're not free. They're not artists. They have no idea what it's like to be an artist.
But then finally you wake up on some morning and nothing was different than it was three days ago or three weeks ago. And you're just done. And you just say, this has got to stop. I don't know.
It was very painful and I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to write anymore. Because the tradition of American, certainly American writers and probably all writers is that you should be and get to be an alcoholic, and most of the great writers were. And I didn't write for months and months, didn't write for eight or nine months and then I wrote the best book on my life, which was All New People. And it turned out when I got sober it's like getting my windows washed. And I had to learn, I was 32 and I had to learn really basic stuff about how to be a grownup, how to balance a checkbook. I didn't have a car because I was often so drunk that I had asked myself nicely if I wanted to quit drinking or driving. And I said I'll quit driving. So I stopped driving. I didn't have a car. It's so easy to talk yourself into just having one more cool, refreshing beer because you're depressed about your drinking.
Debbie: Well, after All New People, which I know you've said is your favorite novel, or one of your favorites.
Anne: At the time.
Debbie: Oh at the time?
Debbie: What is it now?
Anne: I don't know. I really like Imperfect Birds, which is the third part of the Rosie trilogy. With my nonfiction, I really love the book that I wrote with my son. I'd written Operating Instructions, which was a journal of my son's first year, and then we wrote Some Assembly Required, which was a journal of his son's first year. He had a baby when he was 19. No one asked me. And I kind of like them all. I mean, they really are like kids and some of them are, I don't know that are very successful.
But Imperfect Birds I think might be the last novel I wrote and I felt like I was starting to get somewhere, you know, that like 15, or whatever at the time, books later I felt like I could really bring it home, you know? I felt like I could take the reader pretty far out there. It's a lot about teenage girls and who I was as a teenage girl and this character Rosie Ferguson, and why teenage girls were doing what they were doing with men and boys. And the answer seemed to be that the guys liked it and then the guys like them more. And they were getting stoned in our town. It was very scary.
And I did a lot of interviews with teenagers and Elizabeth, the mother, has been sober for a while and has a slip and that was really amazing to write about because I didn't. And then Rosie just starts to love the whole world of doing whatever they do as boys and getting stoned and risky, and she gets very lost.
So the book is about, with a mother who's recently had a slip, can the daughter find her way home?
Debbie: In 1994, you released what is considered one of the greatest writing manuals of all time, Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life. And the title is a reference to advice that your father gave your brother when he was working on an overwhelming book report about birds. Your Dad advised him to simply take it bird by bird. Where did this book come from in you?
Anne: Well, it's funny because the publisher, which was I think Pantheon, which was part of Random House at the time, didn't want it. Because I'd had my first New York Times bestseller, which was Operating Instructions about being a single mother. And the publishing industry is really about parlaying your success into another and a bigger one. And they thought a novel strategically made more sense, because I'd made my name as a novelist.
But I'd been giving these talks for years called Every Single Thing I Know About Writing. And it was all about these terrible first drafts. And bird by Bird, which meant my dad had told my fourth grade brother, "Read about pelicans, and then write a paragraph about them in your own words and then illustrate it. And then we're going to do chickadees. Just read about them and then write me a paragraph in your own words." And so that had always been helpful to people.
Mostly at writing conferences the drive is to convince students that if they do what you say, they'll almost surely get an agent and the agent will sell their book to Farrar Straus and everyone will make quite a lot of money and then you'll have really good self esteem for the rest of your life. And almost no one at writing conferences sells their book, or gets an agent and sells their book and then makes a lot of money and then it has really good esteem for the rest of their life. And I wanted to tell people who wanted to be writers that the writing could give them everything they wanted. Publication wouldn't. And there wasn't going to be enough success, that it was going to have to be an inside job.
But I had a list. Again, I do like lists. My dad had always used index cards and I really, this is before phones and computers, I always believed in writing on index cards. Having paper with you, having a pencil. And I always said, "If you don't have a pencil with you when you have a really beautiful idea or image then God is going to give them to me, give that image to me because I will have a pencil or pen and an index card in my back pocket." So I had things that seemed to help people, and I finally convinced them that I could write it really quickly. I think I had seven months to write it because they didn't want it. And I wrote this book. It just poured out of me, but I'd been giving these talks forever so it was pretty easy.
Debbie: So Anne, of your own artistic journey and how you found yourself, you've said, "I've had to stop living unconsciously, as if I had all the time in the world. The love and good in the wild and the peace and creation that are you will reveal themselves, but it's harder when they have to catch up to you in road runner mode." That scared me because I'm always running and I don't want to lose that. So you stopped. You said one day you stopped. "I began consciously to break the rules. I learned in childhood. I wasted more time as a radical act. I stared off into space more into the middle distance, like a cat. This is when I have my best ideas, my deepest insights. I wasted more paper, printing out instead of reading things on the computer screen." Anne, how did that change you? How did that create this new mode of living?
Anne: It's natural and it's right that you live as if you have all the time in the world, but when you get a little bit older, like by, I was 25 when my dad died, boy did that pop my balloon. And I started to realize you have no idea. You have no idea how long you're going to live and you have to get serious about not squandering this one precious life as far as we know that you're going to have.
And I realized there were all these lessons that I'd learned as a child, and the one was that if it was important, you'll remember it. So you didn't have to write it down. But I was just like this when I was seven, I was just a space case. I was always, they always joked that I was absent minded professor and I kind of had my head in the clouds and I was so absent minded. I was caught lost places, I had to wear my phone number safety pinned to my clothes because I would wander off.
And then this rule, don't waste paper, because the Sierra Club was coming up and my parents were very Sierra Club focused and stuff. Don't waste paper and don't waste any time. If you were sitting at the table in the kitchen and you were just thinking about something that had gone on at school or at a friend's family, maybe the parents had had a fight, which our parents didn't do. You'd be just sitting there kind of working at like clay trying to figure out what it all meant. And a grown up would come along, usually your mother or father, and they'd say, don't you have anything to do? Is your homework time?
And so you were discouraged in spacing out and thinking. But if you're going to be a writer, you just have to space out, you have to stare off into the middle distance like a cat. And I had to unlearn that. And you have to waste paper. I always had my students over print out, and then send money to the Sierra Club, and I almost always try to work off of paper. Because I also love the sound of paper. I love pencil on paper. I love that scritch scritch scritch, you know, it's the sound of paper and pencil that, it's ancient and it's sacred. It's a sacred act.
And there was a third thing that you couldn't waste time. You couldn't waste paper ... I can't remember the third.
Debbie: Food? Ours was, there are starving children in Biafra.
Anne: Oh yes. And I, my mother had grown up on the docks of Liverpool, really, really poor. And so there's this huge pressure around food that you, and it's fifties too, and I'm older than you are, but you absolutely ate what was on your plate. And of course having grown up in Liverpool, we ate a lot of liver. And we ate Brussels sprouts. So I didn't know they were awful. I grew up liking them. But then you couldn't let people know that you felt this way about them because they weren't really considered food by American kids. I mean, I was American.
But we got sent to our room if we didn't finish it. If we cried or if we had any strong feelings at the table, if you complained, to be a child in the fifties and early sixties, to say you really didn't like green beans, your parents' mouths would have dropped open. I mean they would have just looked at each other. My mother would have laughed till she wet herself if I had said, "I actually don't like that."
We got sent to a room without eating so all the women I know in my generation have eating disorders, but they didn't say, "Are you full? Why don't you just sit here while, it's fine." It didn't come up. It wasn't fine. They took it personally, right? It was crazy.
So there's so, so many rules that I had to unlearn as I got older, if I wanted to be okay and have a big- Girls weren't allowed to be big and juicy, with math and science for one thing, you could be a great student until fourth grade. And that was once math and science got really serious, and there was this subtle pressure, I wasn't supposed to do better than my big brother. And I always did. It was like you were infringing on boy land.
Debbie: And you had to reign yourself in.
Debbie: Anne, I want to talk about your newest book. Almost Everything, Notes on Hope. So, Anne, in 2015, on the eve of your 61st birthday, you decided you would write down every single thing you know, which was a list of 14 points published on Facebook. It went viral, it was shared 100,000 times, received more than 11,000 comments and eventually lead to a TED talk on this subject. And I'm wondering if you'd be up for reading a few of the points on the list.
Anne: Yes. I made a list because I wanted to share with my little grandson who was six at the time and my niece what I thought might really help them as they're coming up, because there's just so little truth out there.
And so I'm just going to read these three and you can see the truth in these three points.
Anne: One, life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift and it is filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty. Floods and babies and acne and Mozart all swirled together.
Two, almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
Three, there is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of lasting way, unless you are waiting for an organ. You can't buy, achieve, or date it.
This is the most horrible truth. I'll read a little bit of the fourth. Well, I'll just read the first sentence of the next three.
Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared. Even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe, so try not to compare your insides to their outsides.
Families. Hard, hard, hard. No matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be.
And last, grace. Grace is spiritual WD40. It's water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Dick Cheney and me exactly as much as he or she loves your grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us in our world. To summon grace, say help, and then buckle up. Grace won't look like Casper the friendly ghost, but the phone will ring or the mail will come and then against all odds you will get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness. Even if you are sick of me saying it.
Debbie: Anne, this is one of your great gifts to the world. It really is. I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've listened to this talk of these points.
Anne: Oh, thank you.
Debbie: This book has been described now as the book we need from Anne Lamott. And in the preludes to Notes on Hope, you write, "There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die. Even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles and resurrection. Love and goodness in the world's beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Prius's and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear against all odds leads to community, to bravery and right action. And these give us hope." Are you feeling any optimism in these times, or how can you feel optimism in these times?
Anne: I always feel optimism. And I also am absolutely stunned and horrified by the Trump administration. There, I said it, I wasn't going to name names. But I'm horrified. I'm angry. I march. I send money off to organizations that I hope will bring it all down. And I feel just like everybody does about it.
And I also remember as a radical act how much is really beautiful and touching and precious. I go outside and I make myself look up. And the first line of the book is that "I'm stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse." [crosstalk 00:43:47]
Debbie: I was going to ask you about that at the end.
Anne: Even as I'm waiting for the paper whites to bloom in the kitchen. And the second chapter is that all truth is paradox and these are terrible, terrible times, and they're also the best times. I fell in love at the ripe old age of, I'm getting married and I'll be 65 three days earlier than my marriage. And he's a year younger and three months in a year so that he'll be 63 and I'll be 65. And I have a unbelievably fabulous grandchild who lives with us half time.
And the medicine that has come up has saved more people than I ... We have had literally miracles upon miracles at our church because chemotherapy and vaccines. I love vaccines. I love Cipro, I want to say. I love that I just got a shingles vaccine. I will be so happy for the rest of my life every day that I don't get shingles.
The people that love me are just great people. I can either believe what I secretly think about myself on down days, or I can believe how my friends see me, which is as a magical, brilliant, tenderhearted person. It's a bit of a choice to have hope.
Debbie: Well, you've said, this is how you described finally coming into yourself. "Mess, failure, mistakes, disappointment, and extensive reading. Limbo, indecision, setbacks, addiction, public embarrassment, and endless conversations with your best women friends. The loss of people without whom you could not live. The loss of pets that left you reeling. Dizzying betrayals, but much greater loyalty. And overall, choosing as your motto William Blake's line, that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love." I think that's just perfection. Perfection.
Anne: Thank you.
Debbie: Since you talked about Neil, one quote of yours that I read that was absolutely hilarious was that you were "Thinking of registering with Walgreens or Jack's Drugs in [inaudible 00:45:55], which has a great selection of orthotics and durable medical equipment." I mean, you're only 65, or you're going to be only 65. That's not so bad.
Anne: Yes, I know, but we don't really need anything. We don't need more plates. We don't need silverware or cloth napkins.
Debbie: Give Anne and Neil Cipro.
Anne: Cipro and a cane. Yes.
Debbie: So I have two last questions for you. The first is, you've written that "You have to make mistakes to find out who you aren't. You take the action and the insight follows. You don't think your way into becoming yourself." Does hope help?
Anne: Well, I think one of the reasons I have so much hope as I see that against all odds we can change. And people, when I was a kid and kind of through my twenties, people always say, oh, people don't change. And it's such a crock. Who said that? It's not true. We do change. We soften, our hearts soften. That's the main thing that happens. And we start to be much, much more affectionate with ourselves and forgiving. We learn self forgiveness, we learn radical self care. And we do change. And that gives me hope how far I have come from when I was just the most anxious and terrified people pleasing person to now where I really don't care. My socks really don't always match like Pippi Longstocking's. And I forgive myself. I still might get very cross with myself or frustrated or whatever, but it might last an hour now instead of entire decades, you know? So, that gives me hope.
Debbie: Well, that actually leads me to my final question. You've said that you've learned to stop caring what people think of you. And in doing so you embrace your authentic self and found your audience. So my question is, how the heck did you do that? How do you get there?
Anne: I would say I've stopped caring what people think about me until I have each new book published, because then I become just frantic. And if I get a bad review, I can't go on. I just cannot go on. And I feel like I'm going to have the vapors and for some reason I tear up and I just feel really overwhelmed and I feel that it's all awful and I hate life. But it lasts about an hour.
Debbie: That's good.
Anne: Yes. But then you might get another bad review. I mean, I'm so in the wrong profession because I hate being criticized and I just shrink up, as like a snail having salt poured on it. But it gets so much better. That's what I'll say.
I have a friend named David Rhodes who made up a church called the Church of 80% Sincerity. And I would say I'm 80% better, and 80% of the time I really, really don't care. 20% of the time I still do. But as you pointed out, I'm young.
Debbie: My Dad used to say if you're 80% happy, it's okay.
Anne: Yes. It's really true.
Debbie: We're okay then. And your book is quite remarkable, so, thank you for that.
Anne: Thank you.
Debbie: Anne Lamott, thank you so much for helping to illuminate the world we live in. And thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.
Anne: Thank you so much. That was a great interview.
Debbie: Thank you.
Anne: Thank you, Debbie.
Debbie: Anne Lamott's latest book is Almost Everything, Notes on Hope. And you must follow her on Twitter at @AnneLamott.
This is the 14th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.