Five Things I've Learned from Anne Lamott

After watching a figure skater land a perfect triple axel, my then four year old daughter turned to me and said, “They always make it look so easy!

         “That’s what really talented and accomplished people do,” I said. “They take something very difficult and make it look like it’s the easiest thing in the world, like they’re just walking down the street.”

         And that pretty much sums up my take on Anne Lamott: Her casual and intimate style fools us into thinking she’s just chatting with us, but in fact, she’s most often telling us an exquisitely crafted tale that takes an everyday situation and renders it into a quietly unified story that makes us understand ourselves just a little better.

         Ever since I fell in love with her book Travelling Mercies, I’ve been reading and rereading Lamott to figure out how she pulls off so elegantly something that looks easy but isn’t. Here are five Lamottisms I think all writers of personal narrative could learn from:

1. Don’t be afraid to include a “thesis sentence.” For those of us who’ve had “Show, Don’t Tell” beaten into us, it can be difficult to remember the power of a tip-off sentence at the beginning of a personal essay that tells us what we should be watching for in the narrative. I love how in her humorous and seemingly off-point opening of the essay, “Dad,” she includes a “thesis sentence” at the bottom of the introductory paragraph (Just like your comp teacher instructed!) that signals what we should be on the watch for in the story:

 I was in Houston not long ago, and maybe the city was just having a bad weekend because frankly, it did not seem to be working at all. Perhaps it will someday; perhaps it is going to be a hell of a city when they get it finished. As it was, it was like being there on the first day that the city was open to the public, with all the bugs in the system revealed. But ironically, once again, in the middle of so many things being defective or inadequate, something old inside me got healed.

2. Admit your humanity. Socialized to hide our pettiness, jealousies, and resentments, we sometimes forget that in personal narrative it’s the writer’s willingness to share her smallness that can endear her to us—especially, as in Lamott’s stories, if the narrator is trying to do better. Lamott’s honesty—over her annoyance with her aging mother, her butt and an array of other topics-- is so raw that it’s absurdly comic. We can’t help but trust her as she confides she one minute briefly fantasizes about hurling her mother “beneath the wheels of the oncoming lifeguard’s jeep” and then, with breathtaking elegance, says in the next: “It is what we do in families: we help, because we were helped.”

3.Twine two stories together. Often in a Lamott story, two or more narratives will build on each other or explore the same theme.  For example in the essay, “Ashes,” the narrator in the front story admits her humanity and shows how she tried to control the uncontrollable: her son, Sam, and his unshakeable interest in Alvin and the Chipmunks.  In the back story, the narrator also struggles with the uncontrollable, this time in a memory of the ashes of both her deceased friend and father (“They stick to things, to your fingers, to your sweater.”) Specifically the uncontrollable is ashes, but more generally the uncontrollable is life itself, a theme tied together in the story’s final wisdom: “More than anything else in the world, I don’t want Sam ever to blow away, but you know what? He will."

4.Pair the lowbrow with the highbrow. This bilingual quality is one of the Lamott trademarks that I find most astonishing. One moment she’s referencing the Beverly Hillbillies, the next she’s quoting Wallace Stevens. The bawdy and the divine live cheek by jowl throughout Lamott’s work, which somehow satisfies us as readers. We want our narrators to be easy to relate to, but we also desperately want to be elevated to a better place. On both counts, Lamott delivers.

5. Be deep, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Lamott stories take on hard questions, such as “How does one forgive?” But while the writer tackles the tough stuff with the gravity it deserves, she also displays a charming irreverence for herself. In “Forgiveness,” Lamott writes: “I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years—four former Republican presidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree—it was ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ meets Taxi Driver."

Want to learn more from Anne Lamott? Come join me at my event Bird by Bird & Beyond in Petaluma, CA, January 14th. Enter the promo code “shewrites” before December 22nd at Midnight and receive 20 dollars off the holiday discount ticket price.




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  • Patty Cogen

    Great analysis of Anne's work----thanks so much for taking the time to do this for all of us.

    Simplicity in Anne's work is deep and worth examining.

  • Valerie J. Brooks

    Theo Pauline,

    Thank you for taking the time to post this. As in Bird by Bird, you've given us five steps to improve the heart and soul of an essay. I'm passing this on to my writers group. Friend request to follow!

  • Theo Pauline Nestor

    Yes, I agree Susie. I love the humility she shows in her writing.

  • Susie Bedsow Horgan

    I, too adore Anne Lamott. Her self-effacing humanness and humor always takes my breath away. How she manages to be simple and profound in the same phrase is always a marvel to me. Bird by Bird is one of my bibles. Thanks for this great blog post.

  • Theo Pauline Nestor

    Thanks, Julie!

  • Julie Luek

    This was great. I too am a Lamott fan (and envious of all who can attend this workshop, in seeing both of you). This is a wonderful break down of her style. I love her writing and have tried to adopt that conversational, yet poignant style and it ain't as easy as it looks. Her voice is sublime.