I first heard of Anne Lamott many years ago, when I worked at the information desk at a bookstore the size of a warehouse. Many people came in looking for a book called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I knew I ought to read it one day, and last year, I finally did. I was grateful for those instructions, which I think about pretty much every day. Lamott—who many affectionately call “Annie”—writes with such humor and wisdom that I quickly moved on to the rest of her nonfiction, which focuses on the struggles and joys of leading a faithful life.
It’s rare to find a writer whose words leave you exhilarated, as though you’ve just come from a visit with an old friend. That’s how readers feel after finishing one of Lamott’s books—touched and uplifted by her detailed observations, her ability to find meaning in small moments and simple solutions, and her wit and charm. (If you’re doubtful, just show up at one of her readings on a book tour—you’ll find a packed house with people doubling over in laughter, maybe even wiping a stray tear from their eyes.)
Help, Thanks, Wow focuses on the simplicity and importance of three prayers we all find ourselves saying from time to time: the prayer for when we feel desperate or hopeless (Help!), the prayer for when we feel fulfilled (Thanks!), and the prayer for when we feel awed by the beauty around us (Wow!). Even though many Quakers use the phrase, “hold in the light,” there is something to be said for the moments when we utter—perhaps on purpose or by accident—a word or phrase that helps us find a deepening, an opening, the ability to go on.
Jana Llewellyn: In your latest book, you say there are three simple prayers: help, thanks, wow. In light of recent tragic events, I find myself asking God the question, “Why?” too. Is “why” a prayer, do you think, or more an expression of doubt?
Anne Lamott: Anything you say from your heart to God is a prayer. But “why” is rarely a useful question. When Job keeps asking God why he has had such loss and suffering, God says, “You wouldn’t understand.” I always want to know why, and I almost never have a good answer.
JL: A theme that comes up in your book with regard to prayer is simplicity, which is also a testimony for Quakers. In your books, you talk about doing simple things to make yourself feel better: breathe, get a glass of water, call a friend, go for a walk. I’ve realized lately that simplicity is not a synonym for “easy.” Do you find it hard to keep things simple?
AL: My natural tendency is to complicate everything—and then to spray words and ideas onto everything afterwards. I’ve had to develop the habit of keeping things simple. I often remember to do this after I’m way into making everything complex, so I’ve also learned to start over. First you have to stop the train you’re on, though, which is hard because all that adrenaline and forward thrust can be so addictive. But simple solutions, simple ordinary actions, are so lovely, and are almost always the answer, or the way.
JL: Since Quakers tend to sit in meeting for sometimes an hour or longer in silence, silence is considered sacred. As a writer, what kind of relationship do you have with silence?
AL: I love silence. I seek and create it at every opportunity. I need it to work. Right now my son, grandson, and two of his friends are racing around, and I find that challenging and overstimulating, even though I love them so much. I spend most of my time alone, because I so value and thrive in the quiet. Heaven.
JL: In your nonfiction, you’ve talked about the financial struggles you had in pursuing a career in writing. Now you are one of the most loved and popular writers in America. Is this something you ever imagined for yourself? How do you balance the quiet and reflective side of your job with your more public presence?
AL: I always felt loved and overly-appreciated, even when I was struggling. Maybe it was sort of a disorder, like anorexics think they are fat. I didn’t really start to make a living until Bird by Bird, which was my sixth book. But all those years before, I was so used to getting by on very little money that I thought it was a great scam—I got to be a writer, and I was somehow getting by, even with a small child, and people loved my work. It’s both very strange and wonderful to have gotten well known. I do not understand how deeply people seem to like my work—but I love that people feel I have helped them through hardships, and also have shared my experience of living a more spiritual and present life. It’s so great to be able to make people laugh, because this is so often how we get our selves back.
JL: One thing that always seems to come up in your writing is the importance of friendship. You talk a lot about calling friends, or friends who help give you guidance when you’re in need. What do you think it means to be a friend in this day and age? Is it a sacred relationship, or a distraction?
AL: I think it’s always meant the same thing, and that close friendships are one of life’s miracles—that a few people get to know you deeply, all your messy or shadowy stuff along with the beauty and sweetness, and they still love you. Not only still love you, but love you more and more deeply. I would do anything for my closest friends, and they would do almost anything for me, and that is about as spiritual a truth as you can get. My deep sense of faith and spirituality is directly proportional to the depth and profundity of my lifelong friendships.
JL: One thing that you’re known for is your political activism in addition to your writing. For instance, you raised tens of thousands of dollars in this last election cycle for President Obama. Personally, I’ve struggled with faith during elections, because if someone has what I consider “the wrong view,” it hurts my ability to focus on the good in him or her. How do you protect yourself from that?
AL: I have a terrible time during elections. I am way too politically involved. I absolutely never argue politics with anyone, as it makes me crazy and full of judgment and hostility. I have two very conservative friends, whom I cherish and would entrust my life to; we avoid politics like the plague. So in a certain way, it limits how completely we let ourselves know each other, but this is just the way it is and it is the best we can do. And I am secretly convinced that God is a progressive Democrat.…
JL: You represent a very progressive side of Christianity even though you believe in the Bible’s teachings. Do you ever feel restricted by some of those teachings? How do you respond to passages people have traditionally used to push a more conservative agenda?
AL: I am a terrible and lazy Christian. I do not believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. I just skip about a third of it. I love the parts I love so much, but I find a lot of it just appalling. When a right-wing person quotes a passage in order to attack and stigmatize another person—or group of people—I just roll my eyes. I find most famous Christians to be full of themselves and of prejudice and self-loathing, masquerading as devout religious belief. I find all fundamentalism to be terrifying and very destructive.
JL: It’s striking how few contemporary artists—particularly writers—discuss their spirituality. Your “Wow” chapter in Help, Thanks, Wow talks about the connection of art to divinity, something I absolutely believe. Why do you think we don’t hear from more prominent writers about the role that faith plays in their lives?
AL: That’s a great question. Maybe nobody asks them!
JL: Do you consider your writing a form of ministry?
AL: Yes. Writing is how I communicate my deepest beliefs, and what I hope are helpful observations about our dual citizenship, as children of God, as regular old mixed-up, worried, flawed, precious human beings. I try to preach a ministry of grace—which most often manifests as getting a second wind—and of getting our senses of humor back.
What is your relationship with prayer? How do you pray—vocally, or in silence? Join our February 2013 book club to discuss Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow!