Anne Lamott: The habit of practice

What do you do when perfectionism, vanity, self-loathing and projecting are wearing you down? The writer talks about what she has learned from tennis, faith and writing to deal with these “demons.”

Anne Lamott said that the humor she finds in everyday life -- which abounds in her novels, essays and memoirs -- is nothing less than “carbonated holiness.” 

“Humor and laughter and silliness and giggles can get into some dark, walled-off places inside us and bring breath and lightness,” Lamott said. “When I am at my most stressed, I sometimes lose my sense of humor, and that condition is just a nightmare…

“The most important thing in someone’s writing is truthfulness -- the sharing of the authentic self, the higher self -- and if someone can help me laugh or smile while sharing this realm, I am putty in their hands.”

Anne LamottLamott has been drawn to that “carbonated holiness” ever since she first wandered into a church in downtown San Francisco more than 25 years ago, cold, lonely and hung-over.

Touched by the gospel singing she heard wafting from the open doors of that little wooden church, she felt the power of the Holy Spirit for the first time as a real presence of God’s grace.

From that day forward, Lamott wrote in “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith,” she has embarked on a journey toward sobriety and finding true connection with others through writing. 

“I see writing as a vocation, a calling, like other people might feel [about] the seminary,” Lamott said. “Reading fiction is the ultimate pleasure for a lot of us, and we luxuriate in great writing even as it enlivens us. … It enlarges our hearts and our world, which is so deeply spiritual.”

Lamott has written seven novels, including most recently “Imperfect Birds,” and five works of nonfiction, including “Bird by Bird” (on writing) and “Operating Instructions” (on having a baby and being a new parent).

Lamott spoke with Susan Ketchin for Faith & Leadership about her writing process, what she has learned from tennis, the role that stories play in faith and in leadership, and what we’re called to do as Christians. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Talk about your childhood experiences with religion and how they influenced you.

I grew up being offered by my family -- which was not religious -- some of the great Bible stories. But those stories were very carefully selected for their mythical meaning, their collective unconscious and their archetypal meaning and value -- like Abraham, Moses, and Daniel and the lions.

I was not raised to believe that there was particularly much meaning to my own life. The Bible stories were more like the Greek myths. We were offered the myths as ways of various people trying to understand the fact that life is very, very brutal and scary and weird and mysterious, and it really doesn’t make sense a lot of the time in that the innocent constantly, constantly suffer and are ground down by the powerful.

We have all understood what hell is like. We have watched ourselves be damaged by the people we’ve most trusted to love and guide and nourish us, whether that was our parents or our spouses or siblings or partners or friends.

For me, hell is when I’m absolutely stuck in self-obsession, this terrible, terrible self-consciousness. The healing and grace often comes from being put back together by people -- whether that’s people or stories from people -- that somehow help me lighten up and get my sense of humor back. When I have my sense of humor back, nothing can stop me.

Q: As a teen, you played the junior tennis circuit, and your novel “Crooked Little Heart” focuses on the sport. What have you learned from tennis that helps you deal with this sense of hell?

The one thing that happened revolutionarily for me a few years ago was that I fell in with a teacher whose practice was about learning to play tennis as if for the first time.

Q: In the sense of “Zen mind, beginner’s mind”?

Yes, how to hit this ball with the least amount of stress. It had to do with being playful and more natural instead of getting into that unconscious stress and gripping everything and trying to keep your eye on the ball and that fixation.

It was really about the gift of goofiness and the gift of caring so much less. It was about having a whole new mindfulness -- a new value of play. It was about having more fun with the people you were playing with instead of trying to beat them.

Q: Is it like the concept of “inner tennis”?

Timothy Gallwey wrote “The Inner Game of Tennis.” That book had a profound influence on me. He teaches you that your body knows what it’s doing and that at any given moment you already have all of the information and training you could possibly have to hit this shot with as much confidence and lack of grim fixation as you’re going to, and that there are ways to learn to divert your focus from the pinball machine of your mind to this natural animal body that you have.

Q: How does this practice of sports relate to your practice of writing?

Writing is so much about the habit of doing it. I had established the habit 30-plus years ago, and I just know that I’m going to show up and do it. I know certain things: that it’s going to go much more slowly than I had hoped, that I’m going to have to do 10 pages to get the three I’m after, and that I’m going to go through periods of drought.

It’s like “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” I’m going to go through all of the little cities along the way -- of vanity and self-loathing and projection -- and [I just know] that none of these “demons” are real. They’re all a part of me finding my way back to the now and back to the eternal now and to the ability to experience a direct sense of presence and vitality in my work.

But I know that I have to wear out those other places as they come up, like the obsession with what the reviewers are going to think, or being really mad at myself for having wasted the last couple of weeks, or whatever those stops are along the way. I know they’ll pass. I just have to sit there and wear them out by taking action.

Q: Tell me about your now-famous theory that writers should give themselves permission to write a bad first draft. Do you still feel that this is a good way of freeing your mind?

Yeah, it still works for me. I think it’s the truth of what it’s like to be a writer.

Every writer I know goes through it. Everything I’ve read by anybody that has moved me, changed me or entranced me began as something really out of control and overwritten and overwrought and trying to be too funny and trying to be deliberately intent and profound or trying to be erudite.

But because it’s just a first draft, you don’t have to keep going back and getting it right. You can just plow through it. Then when you end up with a draft, you push back your sleeves and you can get serious.

Q: How do you get your best work out of that first draft? Does serendipity play a role?

There’s that funny old line and bumper sticker, “Coincidence is God’s way of working anonymously.” So things may often seem coincidental or serendipitous, but I think that probably -- I really believe that things are preapproved, that people are preapproved, that we’re preapproved, that our disasters and mistakes are preapproved, and that they really needed to happen or were bound to happen because of our habits, or our histories, or our obsessions, or whatever.

I see such a limited, limited version of reality, and there are concentric circles upon concentric circles beyond concentric circles of a deeper, richer, quirkier, truer reality. I don’t know how much sense we really make of things on this side of eternity. I think on the other side of eternity, we’re just going to shake our heads with disbelief at how crazy we drove ourselves or how organized we thought it all was, how right we thought we were about so much, when it’s going to turn out to have been so much more exquisite and more about a matrix of love and of divine intelligence and energy than we ever dreamed possible.

Q: Could that be one aspect of Christianity? It’s a way of looking at, a way of revitalizing and turning things for all people -- young, old, seeking, lost, bored -- upside down?

It’s what we’re called to do as Christians -- just to be a decent, ordinary human being, a “human merely being,” as e.e. cummings put it in “I Thank You God.” For me, so much of it has sprung from the willingness to stop this forward thrust of getting farther along the path of professional or societal achievement and breaking the bonds of perfectionism.

I think perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor and the enemy of the people. If I believe in Satan, it really is somehow tied up with that perfectionism -- that desperation not to make mistakes or not to look vulnerable, or to not appear human but to always appear to have this sort of wonderful, slightly lofty sense of spiritual eliteness or spiritual differentness from everybody else, especially as a leader.

Jesus is so clear about who we think of as the least of his people. He says, “If you want to be with me, go find them, because that’s where I’ll be. I’m not going to be with the elitists and the deans. I’m going to be with the people. I’m going to be with the poor. I’m going to be with the suffering. I’m going to be with the outcasts. I’m going to be with the marginalized. If you want to draw really close to me, go and help me take care of them, because that’s where I’ll be.”

It’s very hard. We’re not anybody’s savior. We’re disciples, and we’re the carriers of the medicine. God didn’t leave people to starve and suffer and go homeless and go without education; God sent us to take care of the wounded and sick.

Life isn’t logical. It is actually brutal. Cain is still slaughtering Abel, and that is the reality. How do we bring the living water to a very, very, very thirsty, scared and cold world?

Q: How do you do that?

We don’t do it by appearing more powerful and more learned. We do it by showing up and pushing back our sleeves. It’s the loaves and the fish and slowly, slowly, slowly trusting that the more that we give away, the more will be shared and the more we’ll starve for the softening of our hearts.

It’s all grace. It’s all a miracle. It’s all the incredible tender heart and love of God as we understand God, or even barely do. But we step out on our faith and know that we are truly people made of God, made of the same stuff as God -- and that we are to take care of the other children of God and that we can’t be happy until we step into the truth of that.

We don’t step into the truth of that by figuring it out. “Figuring it out” is not one of Jesus’ slogans. We find the truth of that by doing generous things, by being generous, loving people, and by keeping our senses of humor and sticking together.