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Books for the rough patches

04/15/15
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Posted by Mary Ann

I had a hard time coming up with a list of books that are like Anne Lamott’s because, to be honest, there is no one else like Anne Lamott. Her combination of humor, honesty and spiritual inspiration is unique.

One thing I love about Lamott is her ability to capture moments we have all had, though we often felt we were the only ones to have them. Do you remember her story from the time when her son Sam was in elementary school, her feelings about parents who always read every one of the 100+ papers in the first-of-the-year packet, who always baked cookies, who always drove on field trips and who always remained calm, even when outrageous and unexpected things happened?

Lamott fessed up – she resented the hell out of them, especially that perfectly toned woman in the bicycle shorts. When my son was young, I always felt exactly the same. Who ARE these people, I thought. Don’t they have to work for a living? But reading Lamott’s moment of truth, I realized that what I was really feeling was guilt, for not being the very best mother I could be. She put her finger on a very human trait – that many of us are always measuring ourselves against some impossible standard. Lamott’s gift is that she can identify those feelings that we often try to submerge – she brings them to light, she airs them out, she makes you realize how pointless they are. She is unflinchingly honest and almost unfailingly hilarious. To laugh at herself the way she can, and write well about it, is a great gift.

I want to briefly mention two of her books that I particularly enjoyed. The first is 1994’s “Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” This book is a classic, and much loved by many writers that I know, including myself.  The title derives from Lamott’s father, himself a writer, who once told Lamott’s brother, who was paralyzed with writer’s block on the eve of a deadline for a science report, to take it ‘bird by bird.” Lamott is trying to accomplish a couple of things in this book – to get writers to take it “bird by bird,” to concentrate on one scene, one anecdote, one piece of dialogue, and to not let the enormity of the task they are trying to accomplish overwhelm them.

The other big piece of this book is to give writers permission to write first drafts that are less than perfect. In short, the first draft you complete may be pretty awful, but you have to get it down so you will have the raw material to shape subsequent drafts. We have lots of writers on this program, and I can tell you that every one of them, to a man or woman, does lots and lots of writing and rewriting. But the first draft is the way the writer surmounts their perfectionism; they give themselves permission to set out on the path.

Another Lamott book I enjoyed was 1993’s  “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year.” This was her story of her first year with her son Sam as both a single parent and recovering alcoholic.  It was also a year when she learned that her best friend Pammy, who she also writes about in her new book “Traveling Mercies,” had been diagnosed with cancer.  Lamott really captured the first-time parent’s feeling of overwhelming love and overwhelming fatigue – one reviewer cited Lamott’s “glib and gritty good humor in the face of annihilating weariness.“

Another Lamott theme is her position as a recovering alcoholic. Lots of books have been written about alcoholics, addiction and recovery. One I particularly liked is the 2009 memoir “Lit” by Mary Karr.

Mary Karr is famous as the author of “The Liar’s Club,” the outrageously entertaining, funny and sad story of her childhood with two alcoholic parents. She wrote another book, “Cherry,” about her confused adolescence. “Lit” is about her coming to terms with both her own alcoholism and with her mother (who had a drinking problem herself).

Karr has a few things in common with Lamott. Like Lamott,  Karr’s religious faith was a big help in her recovery, and remains a lynchpin of her life. Like Lamott, Karr is scrupulously honest with herself. Like Lamott, she cusses a lot. And like Lamott, Karr had to learn forgiveness, particularly when it came to forgiving her mother, and let me say that there was plenty to forgive. Watching these two bright, creative, eccentric people, daughter and mother, learn to connect again is one of the true delights of “Lit.”

Another book about alcoholism, connection and loss is 2010’s  “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship” by Gail Caldwell. Caldwell is a Pulitzer-Prize winning book critic – she won the Pulitzer for her book reviews while working at the Boston Globe. She also is a recovering alcoholic.

“Let’s Take the Long Way Home” is a memoir of her friendship with Caroline Knapp, an author who wrote a gripping memoir about alcoholism and its aftermath called “Drinking: A Love Story.”  The two, both strong, independent middle-aged women, shared so much – their struggles with alcoholism and recovery, their love of writing and literature, their love of dogs. Then Knapp got cancer, and died. This book is about death and loss, but it’s also about friendship. And about some truly magnificent dogs.

Finally, Lamott talks about forgiveness in “Traveling Mercies,” and her writing has helped me realize why forgiveness is so hard. There are many, many novels in which forgiveness is a theme – one that comes to mind is 2008’s “Home” by Marilynne Robinson. It’s about a “prodigal son” who comes home to his traditional father in a small Iowa town. They both have a lot of forgiving to do, and Robinson, a superb writer, is eloquent on the subject.

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