Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Wordcraft on Wednesdays -- Anne Lamott on writing, families, and faith

Anne Lamott arrived at the Barnes and Noble bookstore on Dallas’s Northwest Highway
last Friday looking waifish.  Still slim at nearly fifty-seven, her graying blonde hair in its signature short dreadlocks, and with skin pale enough to write on -- which she apparently does if she has ideas without paper at hand –she took charge of the crowd, inviting people to sit on the carpeted area near the podium when all the store’s spare chairs filled.

She was there for the paperback release of her latest novel, Imperfect Birds, but pronounced herself reluctant to talk about the book after a weeklong publicity tour.

“Tell us about Sam,” an audience member asked.

Anne Lamott
“I’d much rather talk about Sam,” Lamott agreed, referring to the son whose infancy she chronicled in her memoir Operating Instructions.  Sam, now nearly twenty-one, has a twenty-month old son, Jax, who shares the current dedication page.  (The original hardcover version of Imperfect Birds included a poem by the Sufi poet al-Rumi that explained the title, but most of the crowd seemed to treat it as a reference to Lamott’s cult-status writing handbook, Bird by Bird.)

“Sam is tall and thin and has dark, normal hair.”  She paused for knowing laughter from the audience at the comparison to her own hair, so curly she related opting for dreads as the only way to control it.  “He’s very funny, full-time art academy.  He’s a believer.  I gave him a lot of rope to walk his own spiritual path.”  For the rest of the discussion, Lamott’s passions for family and spirituality intertwined with her passion to writing.

“I write the same book,” she said in response to a question about what she’s writing.  “(I write) that it’s scary here.  That for people like me who are shy, it’s not a good match.”  But she writes, she said, as part of the conversation she has with life, God and her readers.  She doesn’t write, she said, because she enjoys it, but because she counts herself among those “longing to be one of the storytellers of the culture,” who serve as narrators for a collective.  “Nothing has ever happened to me that hasn’t happened to you.  The great words of all liberators, including Christ (are) ‘me, too.’  Only the details are different.”

After nearly an hour, she tore herself away from the discussion with the audience, which clearly loved her, to read and comment on her book.  Imperfect Birds is the third in series about the Ferguson family that began with Rosie and continued with Crooked Little Heart.  Lamott called it a trilogy, but I had to wonder whether the Fergusons might turn up again whenever society has problems their creator feels they can address.  They dealt earlier with the death of young Rosie’s father and the effects of the highly competitive environment that Rosie (and Lamott) experienced as adolescents.  The present book shows Rosie at seventeen, “beautiful and yet with a lot of secrets,” Lamott said, “and it starts to occur to Elizabeth (her mother) that she’s in over her head.”

It’s no secret to readers now that Rosie’s problem is drug addiction.  Lamott has struggled all her life with various addictions, and admitted that there’s some of her in all her characters.  In this case, she felt the need to hold a conversation with young people and their parents about the evils of addiction, the reason, as she states at the beginning of her book that “a teenager died nearly every year after a party and kids routinely went from high school to psych wards, halfway houses or jail.”

(Next week -- Character vs. plot -- agent Weronika Janczuk's series on plotting returns)

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