Friday, November 02, 2007

Yesterday, Anne Lamott, author of Bird By Bird (a book about writing), novels, and memoirs, visited the university. J and I were invited to a roundtable discussion with her in the afternoon, and we got to invite some of our students, too. Lamott is an intriguing woman – just look up any biographical information about her and you’ll begin to see the multifaceted nature of her persona.

Last night, she gave a lecture in Oriental Hall. As Lamott was escorted in, she whipped out a disposable camera and began to take pictures of the beautiful room. She proclaimed that she wanted to live there, in that room, for the rest of her life. Me too. Oriental Hall is indeed impressive and lavish, so indescribable that I refuse to try.

She began by speaking about all the things that had baffled her upon arrival in Cairo, the kinds of things J and I were writing about in our earliest posts. It was fun to hear the raw response of someone who had just arrived. Also, it was wonderful to listen to a writer speak, to listen to a writer tell her audience of budding readers and writers all about the joys and heartbreak of writing, to tell them some of the things J and I have come to understand and some of the things we have not fully experienced but have already heard much about (like the fact that publication is not really a ticket to anywhere, even if your book is successful). But we hadn’t heard stuff like this for a long time. This was the kind of thing we had constant access to at home, but here, not so much. This lack of access is both a relief and a loss. For me, yesterday, it was enough to watch some of my students see an aspect of the literary world for the first time. I remember that feeling, and I did catch my breath when dreadlocked Lamott walked into the discussion room that afternoon.

There were questions at the end of the lecture last night. The final question was from a young Jordanian woman who said she had known all her life that she wanted to write, but that she was afraid to work on the novel she had had brewing in her head for some time. She was afraid of failure; she was afraid that she would never do it. Lamott asked her about the novel – if she knew where it was set, the characters, etc. The young woman had specific answers. Lamott looked at the young woman, really looked right at her, as if they were having a private conversation, and told her to go home after this and write for an hour. She told her that if she didn’t do that, tonight, she would never write this book. She joked that she would be watching her.

I don’t know why this moved me so much, but it did. The delivery of Lamott’s words, of course, greatly mattered – her style is casual and kooky and seemingly a ramble, though it is clear she knows where she is headed as she makes her points. The effect she creates is that she is human and fallible and not always certain about her writing and her life. So I think that the reason Lamott so often has a packed house when she goes on tour or lectures is not so much her practical advice but her attitude in presenting that advice. She is eccentric and warm. She is proud of her accomplishments without sounding like a big jerk – for instance, she said she had a “gift with words” more than once yesterday, and, though this sort of thing usually makes me ill, from her it sounded just fine. She looks people in the eye. And she listens to them talk about their own love of writing or reading – she listens to them publicly speak about the 300 pages of their first novels, and she listens to us neophytes try to publicly piece together and declare our penchant for writing – without giving even a whiff that she has heard this so many millions of times before that she could scream and that her writing is eminently more important, thank you very much. Also, her particular sense of humor eschews the kind of irony so popular these days from a literary world that feels threatened by waning public interest. She just doesn’t do any of that crap. I’ve only met a couple of writers like that. Charles Baxter (who is not at all like Lamott) gets the big golden trophy for it, of course.



Sari said...

Don't hate me--but I saw Anne Lamott and was so disappointed. Of course, some of this might have to do with sitting on the floor of a crowded bookstore and catching only a glimpse of the writer.

But mostly, I felt as if she was putting on an act. Her reading was about the vice of jealousy--but you could tell that she really wanted the audience to condemn the person she'd been jealous of. There was too much of a dance between the stated: "look, I'm a bad person and I admit it" and the unstated: "But let's face it, we all know the guy is a jerk and I'm just cute and eccentric."

A said...

I heard people talking (over bathroom stalls, no less) about her lecture afterward, saying that it seemed like an act, but you know, sometimes you just have those moments where a public person transcends for you, and you know you're projecting something onto that feeling because maybe you need to at that very second. I'm sure that is a large part of my response, so I can't hate you, dear Sari. If I had been listening to her in Minneapolis or something, I wouldn't have been nearly as excited.