I am honored to be interviewing Anne Lamott today. Anne is bestselling novelist and essayist. Her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a writing classic. She has written seven novels and many nonfiction books including the autobiographical Operating Instructions, an account of her life as a single mom during her son’s first year. She also wrote Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son. She has authored many essay collections on faith. Her latest book, her eighteenth, entitled Almost Everything: Notes on Hope came out on October 16th. She wanted to call it Doomed but got advice not to do that. She has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and has taught at UC Davis and at writing conferences around the world. She has even been inducted into the California Hall of Fame. She was dubbed the “lefty guru of optimism” by The New York Times just this week. She currently lives in Marin County.
Hi, Anne. How are you?
Anne Lamott: Hi. Fine, thank you.
Zibby: Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.
Anne: You're welcome. I'm so glad to be here.
Zibby: You are an enormously accomplished and revered iconic writer, yet you started chapter six of Almost Everything: Notes on Hope with the following line. “So writing, what a bitch.” I was so surprised by that. Do you really not enjoy it? You love it but it’s hard? Tell me your thoughts on that.
Anne: It’s hard. It’s hard for everyone. The difference is that I've been doing it for so long, for forty-five years, that I know it’s going to be hard. I know it’s going to go really badly when I start out. The blessing of knowing that is that I stick with it. Other people that start writing can't believe how hard it is. It literally is like pulling teeth. They get discouraged and stop. It’s hard. Every writer, whether it’s a beginning or an old timer, has these built-in critical voices that tell you it’s not going well. Even before you start, they're telling you that it’s not going well. No one is going to be interested. Somebody's already done it. You're beating a dead horse.
Mining is hard. Being a housecleaner is hard. Writing is a different kind of hard. It can be a mentally exhausting thing to do with your life. There's ways to grind that down. There's ways to just keep doing it and wait for something to take itself off and let you run alongside it trying to capture it. That will happen. You have to sit there through the part where you don't think it’s going very well, or it’s ever going to turn into anything meaningful, or that anyone can ever be interested in reading it, plus you're a terrible writer. You have to grind that down by sitting there going “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” like you'd talk to a bad roommate.
Zibby: You said to writers, “Write because you have a story to tell, not because you think publishing will make you the person you always wanted to be. There is approximately zero chance of that happening.” You say in your book and in this conversation already, just to write, the first step is getting it all on the page and shaping it later. Is that the way you approached this particular book?
Anne: I had made a list when I was turning sixty-four of everything that I thought was true that I could pass on to my grandson, who lives here half time, and my niece that I wish someone had told me when I was younger. Everybody's screwed up on the inside. Everybody is insecure and has a raging, wounded ego and thinks that they need to lose or gain weight or do this or that. The culture tells you so many lies about yourself. In your family, you came up with these crazy ways of surviving stress or whatever. We all have them. I wanted the kids to know you don't have to compare your insides to other people's outsides. When you get to know these people who seem so perfect on the outside, it turns out they're just like us. It’s the human condition. We’re afraid. We’re blowhards. We’re controlling.
I wanted to tell them really what's true about writing, which is that the publishing won't make you well and fill all the swiss cheese holes inside of you. The writing will, the being an artist will, the being a cocreator in the world will. You have to make yourself do it. I taught writing for years. People were always explaining to me why they weren’t actually writing right then. It usually had to do with having little kids or taking care of their old folks or that they got a job or whatever. They'd say, “As soon as I move to the Russian River,” or “As soon as my last kid is out.” I said, “No, you won't write then either.” You either are doing it every day for a little bit or it’s not going to happen. That's the other thing I knew for sure is that of course everything will work again if you unplug it, including you. Death is really, really not that scary once you get to be thirty or something. It’s terrifying when you're young. Then you see somebody die, and they were cared for and blessed and safe and pain free, and it still sucked, but that everybody came through. I want to tell them things like that which no one had told me when I was coming up.
Zibby: Thank you for sharing that with all of us. I'm a beneficiary of that advice. I really appreciate it. I'm sure I'm speaking for everybody. In fact, what you just mentioned, your line, “Almost anything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you,” you made that an entire chapter, chapter four, which was great. That's the best chapter. I'm like, “Okay. I read one chapter. Now I can go to bed.” I thought of you this morning when I was unplugging my toaster which was not working for some reason. I'm plugging it back in. I'm like, “Now I think I'm supposed to be unplugging. Isn't that what Anne Lamott said?” [laughs] How do you unplug and recharge yourself?
Anne: I go outside a lot. I leave the phone behind if I can. I unplug electronically if I can. I take a nap every afternoon. I'm really tired. I just love to have a blanket and my dog and to read for a little bit and then close my eyes for forty-five minutes. That's my big unplug. I make myself get away from the TV and from social media. I do the same things you do. I get up and I make myself a cup of tea. I go visit people who are really troubled and sad or lonely. I got visit them. I unplug. I sit there. I listen to them. Same things you do.
Zibby: I love also in the book how you said, “Don't let others make you feel unsophisticated if you reach middle age preferring Hershey’s Kisses.” You said that, Hershey’s Kisses versus dark chocolate.
Anne: That's a whole chapter too.
Zibby: I know. That was great.
Anne: I think eighty-five percent cacao was never intended to be an edible. It’s supposed to be used for shims. If you're somewhere with a wobbly table, it’ll help you, a little eighty-five percent chocolate bar. People eat it because it’s lower carb or because it’s supposedly a good diet food. There's dark chocolate. That's like sixty percent, sixty-five if it’s a great dark chocolate. Eighty-five percent cacao, some strange alien humans love it. I accept that about them, but not me. I'm Hershey’s Kisses all the way, and M&M’s.
Zibby: I can't go above seventy-two percent. That's my limit on the dark chocolate. You also told a story that a former therapist of yours told. You were starting a new diet ages ago. You told your therapist. She said, “That's great, honey. How much weight are you trying to gain,” which is such a great reflection on what dieting actually does. What's your current view on dieting and your relationship with your body at this point?
Anne: I really wrote the chapter for my niece, who’s fifteen and way too big. All teenagers think they're defective and unattractive. I wanted to write it to her. That is a reality that you think you're unattractive or you need to do this or that to be accepted by the world. The dieting won't help it in any way. What will help is radical self-care and time with your very, very best friend and getting out of yourself to hook into something much bigger and spacious like nature or your spiritual path besides your thighs and what your thighs are telling you about your worth or what the scale is telling you about your worth as a human being.
It’s wonderful to be healthy and have exercise and to feed yourself delicious, nourishing food, but a diet is never the answer. I try it all the time. It’s kind of like a slip. I tried it for the book tour. I thought I should get a little thin because I'm on stage and this and that. It didn't work. First of all, I was still on stage. Also, I was in room service a lot. That's never going to be a huge contributor to increased slenderness. All I could do finally was just this radical self-care and to say to myself -- it was like that old Saturday Night Live -- “You’ll look marvelous,” and put on clothes that I felt pretty in and eat the healthiest food I could at that meal.
Zibby: That's great. I love that advice. I keep switching gears here to fit everything in. You've been sober and off of cigarettes since you were thirty-two years old. By thirty-five, you were already a well-regarded novelist with a newborn. In this book, you wrote about your challenges and some of those of your family memories along the way. You wrote, “My lifelong and core belief right after the conviction that I was defective, mildly annoyed, and better than everyone else was that my help was helpful.”
Why did you come to the conclusion that your help wasn’t helpful? Then, what would you tell readers or listeners to do if they're watching a loved one struggle the way you watched your loved ones?
Anne: It really is important to say that if it’s a young kid, obviously you're in charge of their safety and spiritual and physical nurture. With a grown child, a child over eighteen, there's a line in Almost Everything, “Help is the sunny side of control.” I had to look at how much I was trying to control my son after he was eighteen, how sure I was that my idea of his destiny was a good idea for his destiny and that he should pursue this. It’s disrespectful for one thing. It’s useless for another. They resist. They recoil. It was mostly that you stop trying it because it doesn't work. What a concept, right? You release people. You release people with love to their own destiny. If they ask you for advice, you share it. To barge onto somebody else's emotion acre and tell them how they ought to be living, it’s disrespectful. It doesn't work. They're going to have to run and hide from you because you're so toxic.
Zibby: That probably true. I love that. “Barge onto someone else’s emotional anchor.” What a great quote.
Zibby: Acre, sorry. That's beautiful. I read that you met your current love interest online. I was so surprised to hear that. Can you tell me a little about that?
Anne: When I was sixty-one, I went on Match.com. I spent a year with mostly pretty terrible dates, but I learned how to date. I learned what I needed. I learned what I love. I love really highly intelligent conversation. I love long conversations with women about real things like our lives and our families and our bodies and our deepest truth. I realized these guys I was meeting, half of whom brought manuscripts or wanted to bring manuscripts, I realized that I was settling for guys that had all these other qualities except for this thing I love most, which is to be with somebody who no matter what the topic is, politics or religion or families or our work or whatever, were really highly intelligent and sensitive and funny. I spent a year learning to date and not finding anyone. I had little runs with certain guys. Then I signed onto OurTime, which is for slightly older people.
I eventually saw this guy. He was handsome. I liked his looks, and very intelligent and funny. I wrote that I liked his profile. It turned out he was very allergic to cats. I said, “This will never work.” My cat is my life. He said, “If we put brewer’s yeast on the cat’s kibble, it greatly, greatly reduces my allergies.” I said no. I thought I'm sure he has a manuscript he wants me to read. Then about three months later on OurTime, I saw this really intelligent guy, really good looking, nice sense of humor. I wrote to him. “I really like your profile.” He said, “You already rejected me. I think it was because I wasn’t Jesus-y enough.” I said, “No, it was because of the cat.” So we met for coffee. When he started talking, we were talking about real stuff. We were talking about life and god and literature and movies and our children. We've been talking all day, every day since. That was two years and three months ago.
About a month and a half ago, we’re sitting in the couch watching the US Open tennis matches at night. He said, “Can I ask you something?” I said sure. We’re putting in a carport, and so I thought he wanted to talk about the gravel because we had a disagreement about the gravel. He said, “Will you marry me?” “Wait, what?” Then he said, “If you don't want to be married, we can have this life that I love so much. If you do, I'd love to be married to you.” I thought for a minute. I said, “Okay. Can I have a cat?” Turned out he had a ring in his pocket. It was so pretty. It’s so me. It’s pink rose, rose gold, which I really love, and teeny, teeny, little diamonds on the band.
My son Sam, who has a site called How to Human, a podcast with amazing people, Brené Brown and Gloria Allred and Jack Kornfield and Frank Rich and all these amazing people. His battle cry is “We never give up.” In his “How to Human” podcast he really talks about how you don't give up in these cold, dark, scary days. That's my message to people. I'm sixty-four now. I will turn sixty-five three days before our wedding. He’ll still be sixty-three. He’s fifteen months younger than I am. He’ll be one young year younger in a little while. You just don't give up. You don't give up no matter how long it takes. You don't give up just because it looks so doomed or scary out there. You keep the faith. You do the radical self-love. You take care of people. You help the poor. You help your cranky uncle. You try to eat as well as you can. You forgive yourself when you don't. Who knows what god’s got up her sleeve.
Zibby: Wow. That's great advice. Thank you for that. You've done so many amazing things. You've written so many books and contributed so much to society and culture and everything. If you could ask listeners to remember just one thing about you, what would it be?
Anne: That I really, really love life. I really love it. I also have found it very hard here. Everyone I love that has changed and helped me sustain a really high quality of life has found that to be true. If you find it to be hard, good. Come pull up a seat by the table. We’re probably really interested in hearing your story. Don't give up no matter what things look like and no matter how long it takes.
Zibby: That's beautiful. Thank you so much for your time. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for inspiring me to live a better life.
Anne: Good. Thank you for having me.
Zibby: Of course. Buh-bye.