Anne Lamott: "We stuffed scary feelings down, and they made us insane"

The memoirist and Salon fixture talks about messed-up attitudes about grief, mid-term elections, and the joys of 60

Published November 4, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

Anne Lamott        (Sam Lamott)
Anne Lamott (Sam Lamott)

Anne Lamott needs no introduction around these parts. Her essays — about motherhood, faith and the screaming injustice of a regular life — are some of the steel beams that built this very site. Fifteen years ago, I used to read her when I was yet another hung-over upstart at an alternative weekly in Austin, Texas, and although I was not a mother, and although I would not call myself a Christian, Anne Lamott helped me understand both better. She was difficult, and strange, and delightfully twisted, all of which felt familiar to me, and to the legions of fans she has gathered over the years. Long before the words "mommy blog" or even "personal essay" were common currency, Anne Lamott was telling it like it is.

Her new book, “Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace,” is a collection of essays on the subject of grief. And while these stories tackle the inevitable sadness that is our lot as humans — death, cancer, politicians — the book itself is not sad but inspiring. Like a long, nourishing talk with a very wise friend on topics that confound us: Questionable parenting, needless suffering, weight that feels too heavy to carry alone, and forgiveness, particularly for ourselves.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Lamott via email about turning 60, the gift of being exquisitely oversensitive, what she regrets as a memoirist, as well as — and I quote — the tiny weenies of some Salon commenters.

This interview will run right before the midterm election. How are you feeling? What is making you insane right now?

I'm very sad about Mitch McConnell probably getting to be Senate majority leader, if only for two years. To me, he is just everything that is wrong with the world, a bullying obstructionist blowhard liar (not to put too fine a point on it). I'm very sad that Iowa will probably go to Joni Ernst, who is even crazier than she needs to be -- even crazier than Sharron Angle -- and about Cory Gardner probably/possibly winning Colorado, unless there's a huge “Get out the Vote” miracle. They're personhood people, against minimum wage. I don't get it.

But I'm very excited that Rick Scott may lose Florida, Pat Roberts gets the boot in Kansas, and that Scott Walker is in so much trouble in Wisconsin. Ha ha ha (I say as a Christian),

Speaking of politics, one of my favorite lines in the book is when you describe a flicker of internal rage as “my feral Tea Party person, my shadow.” Does this mean you’ve developed sympathy with Tea Party members, since you see that occasional side in yourself? 

We all have the dark, ignorant shadow inside us. I have worked endlessly to reveal it and heal it in me, but of course there's some primitive weird stuff in me. The Tea Party is about exhorting white supremacy, though, so I've had a tiny bit of trouble experiencing sympathy.

How did this book come into being?

I’d been under contract at Riverhead to compile a new and selected book on grief. I think my pieces on coming through sorrow and loss have been some of my most helpful stories, since most people tend to play down heartbreak and unfathomable sadness -- what a buzzkill, huh? But I had 20 years of my pieces to choose from, kind of like a Greatest Hits album of old songs and new. But the book kept getting preempted by other books.

Then I had an epiphany about hiking in Muir Woods with a friend with advanced Lou Gehrig's. We were with her girlfriend of 30 years, in the cathedral of Muir, and I realized that their love, her great courage under fire, and our hike that day were a Victory Lap, which became the first piece in “Small Victories.”

I like your stories about grief, too, and I agree the topic gets downplayed in our culture. Is that particularly American, do you think, or the necessary denial of being human?

Grief is just so scary. Our grief and rage just terrify us. If we finally begin to cry all those suppressed tears, they will surely wash us away like the Mississippi River. That's what our parents told us. We got sent to our rooms for having huge feelings. In my family, if you cried or got angry, you didn't get dinner.

We stuffed scary feelings down, and they made us insane. I think it is pretty universal, all this repression leading to violence and fundamentalism and self-loathing and addiction. All I know is that after 10 years of being sober, with huge support to express my pain and anger and shadow, the grief and tears didn't wash me away. They gave me my life back! They cleansed me, baptized me, hydrated the earth at my feet. They brought me home, to me, to the truth of me.

This book is quite a bit about aging — your aging, the aging of people around you. You’re 60 now. Is it what you thought it would be? What should I be warned about?

My grandson, who is 5, said to me the other day, "Nana, can I take a shower with you, if I promise not to laugh?”

Thanks, kid.

Sixty feels exactly like 50, with aching feet and more forgetfulness. (AAA had to come unlock my car this morning, as God is my witness.) But your inside person doesn't age. Your inside person is soul, is heart, in the eternal now, the ageless, the old, the young, all the ages you've ever been.

However, having said that, I wish people had known more about sunscreen in the '60s.

Is it my imagination, or do you know an awful lot of people who have cancer?

I have known a lot of people with cancer, because I live in the same county where I was born and raised. Then after my dad’s brain cancer, when it turned out I was willing to write truthfully about it, talk about it with people, people trusted me with their stories and fear and grief. Sometimes they asked if I would be there for someone in their family who trusted me, like in the story "Falling Better," where I went skiing in Utah one Easter with a woman who died a month later -- one of the greatest, funniest most life-giving experiences of my life. And yeah, very sad.

There's a line in "Barn Raising" about our dear friends whose daughter got cystic fibrosis, when I offered them the gift of No Comfort -- of not foisting happy spiritual horseshit on them, such as the idea that God never gives us more than we can shoulder. WHAT A CROCK. I know that a great blessing for people who are scared and sad is to have friends nearby, just sitting with them, walking their dog, being willing to feel like shit with them, and not have a lot of answers. That's what I have to offer.

You’ve written over the years about a self-consciousness about your appearance — being a weird-looking kid, for instance, and being hyper-aware of weight as an adult. Does getting older ease that anxiety at all — or make it worse? 

It gets infinitely better as you get older. You've lost your parents and some friends, and you feel so amazed and grateful that you still have the gift of life. You figure out that what your butt looks like is 143rd on the list of what is meaningful here, during our brief stay. You throw stuff out of the plane that keeps you flying too low. And yet; and yet. It's still a struggle. I was so pretzel-ized by the culture's institutionalized hatred of real women. I came up during the Jean Shrimpton years! I was doomed! And after I had a baby, things did not get higher and firmer. I forgot to go to the gym. (I’m kicking myself as we speak.) But you know what? I swim all summer in front of people, anywhere there is warm water -- in front of my extended family, and strangers. (!) And me with terrible cellulite disorder -- the Aunties -- so this feels incredibly brave. So the healing is profound; AND I hate how long it takes to feel radical, militantly maternal self-acceptance.

You’ve included quite a few of your Salon essays in here, including the story you wrote about Why did you include that piece?

It's one of my favorite pieces that I've written in the last couple of years. It's pretty funny, plus I think I come off as being totally heroic for even trying Match. I hoped to give other people the courage to try themselves, AND to warn them of the pitfalls.

One of the parts that has stuck with me about the Match essay, which I loved, is that section on the sex lives of your friends: None of the women wanted sex, and all the men had private porn addictions. Did you get any push-back for saying that? 

I don't think I said that no women want sex ever again -- just that it is nowhere near the priority or drive it is for men. The women I've been closest to all these years — who, granted, are 50 and 60+ now, could easily (even gladly) go a few weeks not needing or wanting it. They have more frequent sex because their husbands want it.

Of course I got the usual hostile letters when we published it at Salon -- women saying, "Oh I just love it, I love it all the time." And I thought, “OK. Well, that's nice."

The Internet porn addiction is epidemic. A third of the marriages I know involve men online, behind closed doors. It's a dark secret that destroys women, marriages, children. If you ever go to a Sex Addicts meetings, you will find it full of married men, preachers and professors, strung out on porn, prostitutes, glory holes. It's nothing new, except for the Internet part.

And so: Is there any follow-up on the Match story? Did you meet anyone? 

Not yet. I think my subscription is good for another month, but it’s been ages since I've gone out for coffee. I met a number of very sweet men, with whom I had nothing in common, except that we love dogs. Mostly, in the second year, I seemed to meet men who responded to me because they had writerly dreams. After one coffee date, they'd start sending links to some of their own writing. The last guy, months ago, wrote the day after a really fun 45-minute coffee date to ask if I could read and comment on a 20-page story he'd just written. Not ideal to be semi-well-known in one's hunting grounds.

One of my favorite essays is a story called “Forgiveness.” It’s an older story, but I’m not sure where it was published. It’s about a rivalry you have with another mother at Sam’s school, and you get so angry at her for what you perceive as her judgment, but you eventually realize you’re just really mad at yourself. This seems to sum up about half my Facebook feed. Have you finally stopped comparing yourself to others? And if so, how the hell did you manage that?

It was published in “Traveling Mercies,” although possibly under a different title. Here's the thing -- of course I still judge others harshly, and compare my insides to other people's outsides, and go through jealousy and resentment; and get completely bitter. The difference is that with recovery and therapy, the grace of growing up, excavation of the scarier archaeological strata in my makeup, and an understanding of how deeply wounded I was as a child and teen, I might lash out internally at others. Then I realize I'm projecting some old fear or self-loathing onto a (sort of) innocent bystander. The realization usually comes now after a few hours -- days at the most -- instead of, say, my entire 20s.

And that is the miracle.

You’ve documented much of your adult life — from your son’s first year to your first grandchild. Anything you regret sharing? 

In 35 years of publishing, what I regret most was trying to be cute and funny with Ruth Reichl, when she was coming to interview me for an article in the New York Times. She'd gotten lost on the way to my house, and called for instructions, and I was nervous and desperate to impress her, so I made a completely stupid lame joke comparing my addled state to my mother and Rain Man. And Reichl led with that. It absolutely crushed both my mother and me. What an asshat!

Well, I guess we both were asshats. For me, the Times was the golden calf, and I got into this sick people-pleasing, needing Reichl to think I was ironic and kicky and more New York than I am, which is not at all true. But she might have figured out that my aged and vulnerable mother really didn't need to be mocked in the most public literary place of all.

We’re living in quite the age of memoirs and first-person. Do you think too many people are writing about their lives? 

No. I think it's great. I love memoirs. They are probably my favorite literary form, along with biographies. The more confessional, the better. There is so, so, so little truth in the popular culture, and I am starved and grateful for any I can find.

You talk a lot about being overly sensitive, as many writers are. But to be a writer, especially today, is to withstand the random criticism of strangers. How do you learn to suck it up and take the occasional bashing? 

It turns out, after all these years, that being extremely sensitive and having a heart that is quite open turns out to be the very BEST things about me. I wrote about it in “Stitches,” in "The Overly Sensitive Child," which you ran as an excerpt in Salon. After (and if) you survive childhood and being a teenager —  one who is so incredibly sensitive to the suffering in the world, and what beasts children and the popular crowd can be — it turns out that all the very best people on earth, the greatest artists and best lifelong friends were this way, too. They didn't have good armor, or the right looks or size or whatever. And they grew into beings of great depth and compassion, great soul and humor. I met a sweet smart guy on who was tiny, smart and dear, whom I was very attracted to, until he said he'd had a totally wonderful childhood, where he felt loved and esteemed every step of the way, by parents who also loved each other, and I thought, Jeez, Louise, what on earth would we talk about?

Perhaps this is a self-interested question, but you have so many years in this business. How do you mentally prepare for a book coming out? How do you keep yourself from completely losing your mind?

It's just so hopeless. I think “Small Victories” is my 15th book, and I'm totally anxious and obsessed. It just comes with the territory. All criticism hurts me. I'm so in the wrong business. To prepare for the critics, I eat a ton of Fage cherry yogurt, and binge on Shonda Rhimes. I actively try to keep the patient comfortable.

I very rarely read the responses to my Salon pieces, because (as you may have noticed) the trolls can be SO evil. So violent in their hostility to me and my work.

OK, wait, wait, wait. That's a lie. I do read the responses -- and get mesmerized, like cobra hypnosis. But I laugh (mostly) at the trolls, and think about what tiny little weenies they must have. (They seem to be mostly men.) And then ALL these smart, funny people leap to my defense, which is medicine, and fills me with love and thankfulness.

And let's not even get into the neglect! If the Times, or the Post, or the New Yorker ignore me, of course my default response is that it's about me, Al Franken, and it means I'm not an important writer. But again, it lasts a few hours, or days -- not my entire 30s and 40s.

And what are you working on now?

Nothing! I want to take a sabbatical, for at least a year. I’ve had five book tours in four years, and I am both sick of the sound of my voice, and passionately on my own side.

I don't have anything in mind or in my heart that I feel like pursuing. And I need a break. Time to fill back up. It would be good for me in every way to lie fallow.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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Aging Anne Lamott First Person Writing Grandmothers Memoir Motherhood Small Victories Writers And Writing