Popular writer Lamott has skills of a stand-up comedian

July 30, 1995
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Sure, we expected an interesting lecture on writing when Marin County's Anne Lamott spoke at UC Davis earlier this month. Lamott is the author of "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" (Pantheon, 1994, $21). But most of the people at the Alumni and Visitors' Center probably didn't realize they'd also be hearing from a stand-up comedian.

The packed room was filled with laughter as Lamott told war stories and shared writing tips. She began by reading an essay on jealousy from "Bird by Bird."

"If you continue to write," she warns her readers, "you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know - people who are, in other words, not you."

"Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and the most degrading. Bank on it. And I, who have been the Leona Helmsley of jealousy, have come to believe that the only things that help ease or transform it are (a) getting older, (b) talking about it until the fever breaks and (c) using it as material. Also, someone somewhere along the line is going to be able to make you start laughing about it and then you will be on your way home."

Still, she's been sorely tried. Like the time a writer friend of hers called and said: " I don't know why God has given me so much money this year." She swears that's an absolute direct quote. How is a human being (who's a little short of cash) supposed to respond to a statement like that?

She interrupted her reading to look at the audience and assure her fans that she's not really a green-eyed monster. " I'm a devout Christian. I know this (essay) makes me sound a little angry...I would have toned it down if there'd been time."

But she finds it hard to tone it down. The bon mots just keep coming, fueled by resentment. "If you want to know how God feels about money, look at whom she gives it to," says Lamott. Lamott 's popularity stems from the fact that she's a real human being who doesn't come across insufferably pretentious. She is angry, jealous and stressed. She's also honest, sentimental and generous. In the right combination, these aren't all bad things to be.

For instance, Lamott is blunt about being in recovery. She hasn't had a drink in nine years and she's not shy discussing what she used to be like, what happened and what she's like now. That's a generous act. (I'm reminded of short story writer Kate Braverman of L.A., who's written collections of stories about drunk women, drunk mothers and drunk men. In the course of her fiction, few recovered.

("So, " I said when I interviewed her once, "you seem to know a lot about recovery." The silence was deafening. Hello? She wouldn't cop to knowing a thing about addiction, the theme of her several books.) Lamott says she's successful because she just writes about what life is really like. She compares herself to Nora Ephron and it's an apt comparison.

Lamott says she gets letters from women who want to adopt her as their new best friend because they feel such a thrill when they recognize someone else telling the truth.

"Nora Ephron ("Crazy Salad," "Wallflower at the Orgy") affected me 20 years ago the same way," said Lamott. "I can't believe people think about me that way today."

Lamott is in her early 40s. She is a single mother who adores her young son, Sam. My only criticism of Lamott is that she talks about Sam too much. Sorry, but I had to say that.

I appreciated her answer to a woman who asked how Lamott stuck at her writing career for so long, when success looked unlikely and money was scarce.

She didn't start making a living as a writer until the publication of her fifth book.

"It's scarey," said Lamott. "But then, so is a nine to five job. There's a trade-off."

Lamott described seeing a black kid wearing a rap T-shirt that said: "It's a set-up, so keep your head up." That sentiment grabbed her.

"We are set up not to try very hard, not to emphasize our spiritual or creative life and not to take chances," she said.

Her best advice is this: "Write a little bit every day." Then you won't look back on your life when you're 80 and say: "I wish I'd taken the time to write."

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