Sh*tty First Drafts with Anne Lamott - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Sh*tty First Drafts with Anne Lamott.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
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I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”
This show was born out of my own personal Terribles. And if you’ve been listening long enough, you already know them. And if you’re new, here they are: losing a pregnancy, losing my dad, losing a husband. Boom, boom, boom. Just like that. From October to November 2014. One after another, no time to get back on shore before being ripped back into the waves, no way of telling what way was up, or if the storm would ever settle.
Now, when your life falls apart and you are a reader, people give you a lot of books. They give you a lot of hotdishes. They give you hugs when it’s safe. We are a people who want to comfort, to have the right words and the right things to make it better as fast as we can.
When really, if you’ve been in the muck, you know that some things just cannot be fixed and some things are just … hard.
So, I got many books after all of that happened, and many of them ended up in the donation pile immediately. My brain could not absorb. My brain would just read the same sentence over and over and over with zero comprehension, zero retention. Words did not mean anything. They did not get very far into my brain.
But one of the books that I actually read, that actually got through all the grief and all the pain, was a book by Anne Lamott called Traveling Mercies … and here’s why. It’s this quote right here:
You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.
All of us Terribles are learning to dance with the limp, or least walk, or just stand on two legs. We all know what it means to lose someone or something you thought you could not survive without, to live with a heart that doesn’t seal back up.
And since reading that one book, I’ve read all of Anne Lamott’s books. I’ve gotten immense amounts of comfort and wisdom from her writing book, Bird by Bird, which I’ve recommended on this podcast before. I have dog-eared and highlighted all of her books. And this is where I put in a big disclaimer, which is that: Anne Lamott is a Christian and a writer, and yet … she’s not a Christian writer. And I know for some people the mention of faith, the mention of christianity, puts up a red flag. This is not a place that’s safe for you, or an environment, or a writer, or whatever, that is safe for you. But that’s not what Anne Lamott is like. That’s not the kind of writer or kind of christian she is, which i know will offend some people. But I think it’s also worth saying that there is a brand of Christianity that feels very unlike Jesus Christ himself, that perpetuates health and wealth and personal responsibility over communal care and accountability and justice, and Anne is … the opposite of that. Her faith and her writing, they are the opposite of that.
If she weren’t, we wouldn’t air this episode. I wouldn’t have sent an all caps YES to her reps when they reached out offering her precious time for this interview. I sent that email literally less than a minute after I got their email, because I believe that acting cool is overrated and you should not be ashamed of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is great.
Also, I had just read her most recent book, Dusk Night Dawn, and I’d dog-eared that, and it felt like perfect timing. So … here we go. Recorded in my closet and her beautiful office, here is our conversation with Anne Lamott.
Nora: Anne Lamott. There's almost too much to talk to you about, and if we had a patron saint of this podcast, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” I hope you would take it as a compliment to say that you would be the patron saint of this podcast.
Anne: Oh, thank you.
Nora: You are a person whose work and whose life really spans the human experience and is not afraid to acknowledge and make space for the fact that, honestly, life is sometimes just really fucking hard, and that's the thing.
Anne: That's the whole thing. It's really- I mean, you don't get that message from your parents, or the culture or much of anything. The message is that you should be doing better, that you have a better life than almost everyone on Earth, and what is the problem? And lighten the fuck up. But the only people that I ever want to be friends with are the ones who say, “Terrible, I hate everything, how are you?”
Nora: And this is the place for you. It really is. And we don't get this message, we don't get that kind of validation growing up. I was raised by boomers, and I have slowly, through many years of therapy, realized it's not their fault, and it's not even their parents fault. We are all a product of the ways in which the people who raised us were raised, and the people who raised them were raised, but with all that said, what were the messages that you got in childhood and what kind of a kid were you?
Anne: Well, I was a very shy and social kid. I was told I was really funny looking. I had this curly kinky hair, and I was very, very thin. And back in the ‘50s, it seemed fine for adults to comment to your parents, within earshot, of how thin you were, how skinny, did they feed you? And I wrote in Operating Instructions that I was 35 before I realized that B plus was a good grade. They'd forgotten to mention that. So I spent my childhood dancing as fast as I could to do better, to try to save my parents’ marriage by having so few needs and by doing so, so well that their attitude and their vibe might improve, and it didn't work at 6 years old and I'm about to be 67. It doesn't work any better now to try to get everybody else to be happy so that I can feel safe.
But yeah the message was that okayness was within my reach, but as is, I was not OK. And the message was, you know, to stay on your toes, that to relax meant that you would be squashed, to relax and maintain the playfulness of early childhood and the generosity and the ... the really merciful heart of really little kids was going to hinder my success in the world, and so to put all that away in a drawer and to get into the American path of forward thrust. And so I got sober when I was 32, almost 35 years ago. And I started to learn then that there was another way of life, of plopping and paying attention and getting my curiosity about life back and, and giving up on the belief that the outside world could give me the FDA stamp of approval and that unfortunately and wonderfully, it was going to be an inside job.
Nora: Unfortunately and wonderfully, it has to be an inside job. I hate the responsibility of being a person sometimes.
Anne: I know.
Nora: Like, don't we have enough to do? Why do I also have to be responsible for my own emotional health? Which is, honestly, it's really hard to do as a child. I also was not aware that a B plus was a good grade. I mean, if it was not an A, you might as well fail. And then if you fail, why even try.
Anne: You really can't win for losing, right?
Nora: Yeah. It's like, there’s no such thing as an almost. Or an almost just doesn't matter, just doesn't have the same weight to it. In your most recent book, and I loved this phrase, you said that Dread was your governess growing up and that you had hired her.
Anne: I think that's the opening line in one of the chapters of Dusk, Night, Dawn, and I got the understanding that I had hired her from my husband, Neil Allen. And his vocabulary for that same idea is he would call it the superego and I would call it my governess Dread who raised me. Same thing. But what he taught me was that she kept me alive, you know, for the first 6 years, and she helped me not run out in the street and she helped me not swim out past my ability to stay afloat, but that after 6 or 7, I was very good both as a swimmer and at traffic safety.
What Neil does at shapes of truth with his clients and in his book is he actually brings forth the superego or the governess and has people talk to it on the table. And he affirms them. He says, “I'm never going to get rid of you, so don't worry, I'm just wondering who hired you?” And the answer is always, “You hired me.” You know, you hire me because we were raised in often such frightening homes and marriages that to stay small seemed like a way of us staying safe, so that dread or the superego constantly tell us stuff. And I know you as a writer know this, that we just break ourselves out constantly. Dusk, Night Dawn is my nineteenth book. And if I started twentieth, I will hear that voice of Dread saying, “Boy, talk about beating a dead horse or a boy has the well run dry.”
I mean, they’ll be there with me in spirit, and I'll be there with you when you are at work on your new book. And we hire that voice, or we don't banish that voice, because to be a woman, especially, and to be big and juicy and free in the ‘50s meant you were going to be exiled. As a child, it meant you got sent away from the table without eating. So it's a long road back, but it begins with the awareness. And I hope my book helps you be kind of spritzed awake to how we keep summoning that bad voice, because it's so terrifying to be big and juicy, right?
Nora: It's so terrifying.
Anne: So we stay small, and we still need help with traffic and swimming. But, you know, as my friend Terry, the priest, says, “We don't get over here much.” So you're not going to get over the dread or the superego. But Neil helps people help it find a new vocation. And he has his client say to it gently, “I'll never get rid of you. But I'm wondering if you might be willing to be the ethical consultant for the community, and so there's a really great reading chair and reading light in the library, and if you could wait there and just read until we need an ethical consultant and then we'll come get you.” And dread and the superego are so pleased. It's obviously a job with a lot of panache, and they go off and they wait until they're summoned to some extent, and then you can get on to being as bold and radical in your writing and in your life and in terms of your body and your self-image as you possibly can be, one day at a time.
Nora: One day at a time. And also understanding that things like this take time, and that it is a gradual and sometimes rocky and sometimes circular process, which is so difficult. You wrote, “It takes such a long time to grow up, and I hate that.” And I loved reading that from a 67, 66-year-old currently, person, because we have this sense that we are on our way somewhere and we will arrive there.
Anne: Right. Because that's the American way, that's the forward thrust. You know, this idea of being exactly where you are in the moment is very problematic for the parents and teachers, because if you're sitting around savoring things like, you know, Ferdinand the bull, it means that you might be falling ahead in your studies, and there might be somebody in your third grade math class who's taking over as the best student in that subject, so ... I just heard a beautiful line of Thich Nhat Hanh's, of course. He said, “You have an appointment with life and that appointment is scheduled for the here and now.” But that is not efficient, and that's not going to help me sell books, right? And that's not going to help me position myself for the next one. But it's such a long road back from that kind of thinking, that you've got to figure out the next step. You've got to figure out your next move. And it just starts to argue a wasted life.
Nora: Yeah. It starts to feel that anything that is not constant forward momentum must be a step back, when in reality and in nature, which you observe so beautifully, nothing grows forever. Nothing.
Anne: No. Actually in the last book, the book on hope, which is why I wrote this book, because I was going around the country when we could still do such a thing, you know, talking to people about the hope book, and the people in my audiences just didn't feel any hope at all, you know? They'd had a really scary government for a couple of years. They had really scary things happening at the dining table. They had scary teenagers, scary marriages, parents becoming very, very old and infirm. Dusk, Night, Dawn was a response to that experience, where not one audience was exuding hope. So I talked in that book about being in the garden of a church with a very, very old friend whose whose grandchild is a kid of 30, say, who's freaked out about death, and so we were at one point just studying the hens and chicks, cactuses in the church garden, and what you see are these baby chicks huddled around the mom, but the mom’s getting older, and they develop this beautiful rose colored border around them. And then you see the mom's moms, and they're not growing really anymore, and they're turning into the dust from which we spring into which we return. But as they are returning to dust, it's not dust, it's nutrition for the soil, you know? And so they are helping the new baby chicks grow strong and then helping the new baby chicks grow into really healthy, nutritious moms.
Nora: Yeah, death is very scary. I have a child like me, emotionally just cut from the same anxious, deeply feeling cloth, which is so difficult. It's so difficult. For our listeners who are, who may — there might be one or two out there, who have not read one of your 19 books. And for them, I do feel very sorry, and also kind of excited for them, because now they get to, like, just jump right in, which is how it felt when I finally read one of your books, which somebody gave me in college, and I didn't read till my husband died. And I was like, “Oh, this is why you gave it to me. This is why you gave it to me.” What is life like when, before you realize that dread is the governess that you hired and that you have some control over when you are emotionally ... not illiterate, but sort of emotionally stifled by the people who raise you, how do you grow into an emotionally capable person?
Anne: Well, I got sober, again, at 32, and I stopped drinking and using and really numbing out all the time. I was also bulimic. I've been anorexic. I've really had every single disorder you can have except for gambling, which my friends say is a big get for me. But you know what I did till 32 was to just try to not have scary feelings and this very, very high degree of sensitivity. My parents were so unhinged by my open-heartedness and sensitivity when I was a child that they had a book that was very popular in the ‘50s called The Overly Sensitive Child, because it was apparently just such a nightmare to have a person like you. And so the battle cry of my teachers, of my parents, of my grandparents, and of my friends’ parents was, “Annie, you have got to get thicker skin,” which is like, I would love that. How would I do that? And by extension, it means that the way that you are right now is really not OK. If you could become a pretty much completely different person, we would be able to really bear up better as your parents.
Nora: I remember finding a parenting book that alarmed me in a similar way as a kid, where I was like, “Oh, is this how you see me? Oh.”
Nora: Like I fully knew it was purchased for me.
Anne: Yeah. You know, you might consider writing a book that’s a knockoff of your podcast called “Terrible Parenting 101,” because almost everything my parents thought was true, coming up in the ‘50s, and everything that I believed to be true about being a parent, i.e., the perfectionism and this kind of hippie version of helicopter parenting, turned out to be a lie. And you learn as you go what works for your kid and maybe no one else.
You know, when I was a child, if you cried, if you seemed too sensitive, if you had any of the bad feelings, such as fear, anger or sorrow, you got sent away from the table without eating, so therefore, coincidentally, I developed an eating disorder and so where do you get over that? I needed a lot of therapy. And when I got sober, I didn't know how to eat. I thought you were either on a diet or you were a completely out-of-control-like animal, you know, and I wrote about this in Traveling Mercies, but I had a therapist, and I went to her fully bulimic with heart issues. And I kept like, belligerently saying ... I was one year sober. I kept saying, “Well, I'm going to be throwing up later today, I'll be bingeing.” And she said, “Oh, OK, that's fine, you know, you have free will,” and I said, “Yeah, because no matter what you say, I just want you to know I'm going to stop off at the grocery store across the street and begin to binge. And then by the time I get home…” and she said, “No, that's fine, I'll never take anything away from you, because you'll want it back.” And then she asked all of these really perverse questions like, “When do you eat?” I was like what? She said when do you eat breakfast? I said, “Well, I eat breakfast at breakfast time, duh!”
Nora: You maniac. What do you think I do?
Anne: I know what the? And she said, “Well, are you hungry when you have breakfast?” And I was like, what does that have to do with anything? And she said, “Well, what do you eat?” And I say, well, it depends whether I'm being good or whether I'm out of control. So if I'm being good, I would probably have some health food, cereal, but not granola, because it's so fattening, with skim milk, or I might have some yogurt with fruit. And she said, “And is that usually what you're in the mood for?” And it was like, what? Who do you think you are to badger me like this? And I said, “Well, when do you have breakfast?” And she said, “Well, I have breakfast when I'm first hungry.” And I'd say, “But what does that even feel like?” And she'd say, “Hungry? Well, do you know when you're hungry?” And I said, I don't have a clue, you know, to be honest, I eat when it's lunch, breakfast time, lunchtime, dinner, and I eat a healthy snack in between and at bedtime. And she said, “Well, when I'm hungry, I feel this kind of scratchy emptiness in the pit of my stomach.” Scratchy emptiness? And I said, “And then what?” And she said, “Well, then I ask myself, what would I like to eat? What am I in the mood for? Am I in the mood for crunchy? Am I in the mood for creamy? Am I in the mood for salty?” And I said, “So what did you have for breakfast this morning?” She said, “I had a roast beef sandwich.” I thought, you what?! You know, that's for lunch. That's a lunch. And little by little by little, I had to develop this awareness of when I was hungry and what I was hungry for. Was I hungry for food, or was I hungry for a phone call with a best friend? Was I hungry for a hike, was I hungry for a nap? And if I was hungry for food, was I in the mood for nachos even though it was breakfast, or was I in the mood for ice cream?
Well, if you eat ice cream for breakfast, the thinking, if you're a chronic dieter and you have an eating disorder, if you have breakfast ice cream, then it means you're out of control and you have to eat all sweets, fats and salts for the rest of the day, because you're going to start over tomorrow. Because that's the system. And so it was just so perverse. And then the first week's assignment was to notice when I was hungry, and it was like when Helen Keller learns the first word for water.
Anne: With Annie Sullivan, right? Annie puts the pump water on her hand and signs into her hand “water.” And then Helen runs around the property, touching things, feeling them, while Annie signs what they are. That's what it was like for me with food. And that's only one example, because everything, in answer to your question, was basically me being Helen Keller, not having a clue what my real feelings were, because I was used to being such an excellent sport. You want to say terrible, how are you? Is like the most radical thing you could ever say. It's like, really, you're terrible? After all the blessings that you are surrounded by? It's like, yeah, I hate everyone and ... but now when I call my best friend who's just like us, I say, “I hate everything and all of life,” and she says, “I'm so glad you called, let's go to Target,” you know? So what happens is, for me in sobriety and in therapy, I began to develop friendships with people who weren't conning me, that they were almost always in a good mood and had a really beautiful, positive attitude. I found people like me for whom it was safe to tell the truth, for whom it was medicine to tell the truth and hear the truth and response. And my best friend's son died three months ago, almost four months ago now, he's 23. And so for 13 years, people would say, “How are you doing?” you know, in this kind of lugubrious way. And she'd say, “Today is like the worst day of my life, but I'm really excited, because I get to go to an AA meeting and my mom made me a gluten-free cake.” One day about a year ago, when her son was clearly, clearly getting ready to start closing up shop, I called and I said, “Are you OK?” And she said, “I have to keep moving the goalposts of what OK is, so my son this morning is making art with people who adore him and other kids with brain injuries, and he's painting. And so, yeah, I'm OK, you know?” And so that really changed my whole perspective on, on how I am. And it's OK to be terrible because it's real. And I don't think you, and I know I, didn't get the message that real was beautiful, the message was to get the surface together, that's what we want, and that's what we're hoping for you.
There's another piece in the book, where my comedian friend Duncan Trussell says that when you first meet him, you're meeting his bodyguard, and I really think that's true for so many of us, that you meet the person who is protecting the really shy, small, vulnerable young person inside of you who's so real, who is still real. And I'm 66 for a few more hours, and even at 66, there's my girl right there. And so I do send my bodyguard out to meet people. And then if they're trustworthy, which is to say if they'll tell me the truth, that they're terrible or confused or lost or grief-stricken, I will say, “Oh, my God, thank you for trusting me. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Nora: Thank you for trusting me. And that's also, I think, how we become trustworthy people. When you are terrible and the people that you care about, the people that you really want to care about you, can't get there with you or can't accept that for you, it's so hard not to take that personally. It's so hard not to like, let that wound you and make you feel even smaller and even lonelier, even though it really has nothing to do with you. Their emotional inability has nothing to do with you, but it feels like it does.
Anne: Well, we were told that it did. It had everything to do with you. So, first of all, the paradigm is that you're the reason that they're unhappy and also that you're the solution to their unhappiness, right? And somebody said to me the other day, somebody who had just gone to an Al Anon meeting, and they said, “My battle cry was that if they were happy, I was safe.” Right? That is so true. If the parents were OK, and then the teachers, and then the boyfriend and then my child, if they were happy, I was safe. And if they had created just a catastrophe because of their own behavior and choices and consequences, I wasn't safe. And so it took, you know, I've got 35 years of recovery, and I would say about 20 of them, I finally figured out that I could feel safe and have good self-esteem no matter where other people were, whatever they were going through, that they were on their own emotional acre, and they had created just some mess or just a lot of misery, and that A., I didn't have to go onto their emotional acre, because I have my own, and there's always plenty of work to do on this one — keeping it clean and watering my plants and arranging the books. And I learned that I could be happy whether people were drinking or using or remembering to take their medicine. I could be happy and peaceful if they were staying stuck in a really toxic relationship. I could wish them well.
One great prayer is “bless them and change me,” you know? “And help me disengage from their choices and their condition.” And it doesn't mean that I'm cold and I turn away from them. It just means that I can't get their toxic mess all over me, because I don't know how much longer I have here. Dusk, Night, Dawn was originally called The Third Third, because it takes place in my third third, and a lot of it has to do with some of the wisdom and grace of being a little bit older, the grace of myopia, say. And so it's like I can gently release people, and I do a lot of good deeds. I'm kind of pathologically kind. But I try not to get my goodness all over people, because it just keeps them shut down from the only thing that ever got anybody to wake up or get sober or get therapy or learn to eat in a healthy way, which is the, you know, the willingness comes from the pain. And if I'm medicating their pain for them out of my own disease of codependence, I'm keeping them from the one thing that might help them find a much, much better life.
Nora: Oof, but it feels so good to try to fix people. It feels so righteous. I love to be right. Which is also its own disease. You mentioned your third third and I love that you present yourself as still growing up, even though you're in a third third. And I also love that in your third third you found Neal. And I would love to hear a little bit about meeting him and falling in love and the difference in dating and partnering with somebody in your 60s vs. your dating life in your 20s and 30s and 40s, which was much different.
Anne: Yeah, definitely. Well, I definitely wrote about it a little bit in the hope book, because, you know, my son, who's 31, almost 32, has a tattoo on his forearm that says “we never give up.” But besides not giving up, I learned how to date on Match. And I did Match for a year with some really god-awful dates. If you just Google Anne Lamott on Match.com, it'll bring up the piece I wrote for Salon. I learned how to date, and I learned what I didn't want, and I learned what I was holding out for, and I met Neil on Match. And I actually tried to get rid of him at first because he's very allergic to cats, and cats are my life. And then he said if you put nutritional yeast on kibble, it would greatly, greatly reduce his allergic-ness. And I thought, well, he's trying to get into my pants or he has a manuscript, because several men had brought me manuscripts in the year I dated. One had brought me a plot treatment on our second date. And then Neil really didn't need me to try to promote a manuscript or he- he's just like a guy with a lot of integrity, and it turned out to be true.
So I wrote about our marriage in Dusk, Night, Dawn, and the Cat Codicil, which was when we were watching the U.S. Open one day, he said, “Annie, can I ask you something?” And we have to get this patio pebble for our little patch of garden. And I said, “Oh, sure,” because he always goes darker and I always go lighter. I said, oh, sure. He said, “Will you marry me?” I was so, so surprised and shocked, I hadn't seen that coming. And then I said, “Can we have a cat?” Because our cat had run away. And he said, “Sure.” So the Cat Codicil was that we got a cat and then we got married three days after I got Medicare, and now the cat sleeps with us, because the nutritional yeast really does work. And we’re coming up on our second anniversary, and one full year of marriage was in lockdown. You know, I adore him. I really did get what I longed for, which was someone who is as smart as me, and as spiritual as me, and who had a great sense of humor, and the fact that he was good looking didn't hurt. He's very tall, and he looks kind of like William Hurt to me. And you can see him in Shapes of Truth, my son took his author photo and you can see.
Nora: Oh, I Googled him. He's very handsome.
Anne: Of course you did.
Nora: I did. I did. I did a good stalk.
Anne: Yeah. Yeah. Good girl. So, you know, it's been challenging because one of the ways that relationships work at all is that you both are gone a lot. You go places. And we didn't have very many places to go. And one thing we love, love, love to do together is to travel, and of course, we didn't travel anywhere. We'd get in the car and drive out to the country, you know? When we felt really wild and crazy. And we listened to Beatles. And so some of the book is about what do you do? People are annoying, I'm annoying, and how do we bear each other's foibles and wounded parts and scar tissue. And, well, we do it one day at a time, and we let ourselves have really bad days, and we let ourselves be different, which I hate. I would like him to be almost exactly like me.
And he has these brothers, and we have these family reunions on the East Coast with them every year. And they are all know-it-alls, and I call them Wikipedia on PMS, because they're always trying to one up each other in terms of their brilliance. And I'm not that way at all And so Neil will get really frustrated and mad, and say something really harsh, and then I cry, and then he stomps off. And about 20 minutes later, he's done with it, and he comes back and he apologizes. Sometimes it might be a few hours, but, you know, Jesus said, don't let the sun go down on your anger, so we try to work it out before we go to sleep. But then what I do is I get really quiet, and then I weaponize the quiet. Sam and Neil have a ball comparing notes on my weaponized silence. But, you know, you learn that feelings aren't facts. Neil was raised the way he was with the difficulties he had as a child, which were very heavy but different than mine. And he gets to have them and I get to be the way I am. I am, you know, I know I'm kind of a ham on stage, but in real life, I'm just shy, and I'm still an overly sensitive child. And he adores me, and I'm the same woman that he ... on our second date, realized we could never be apart from even for a day, because we really haven't been apart since our first date, except when one of us had to go out of town. And I'm the same woman he proposed to. And if he didn't know that the quarantine was coming up and we were going to be in lockdown ... I'm still the same woman, he's still the same man.
And, you know, there's a chapter in Bird by Bird, my writing book on perfectionism, because I really call it the voice of the oppressor, you know, the voice of the enemy that will keep you small and screwed up here cringe at your entire life. And so for my writing students, I really, really try to help them break through the perfectionism, and the way that you do that is by failing more often and affirming how amazing and brave it is to make messes and mistakes all over the place, to have to restart and reset over and over and over again. And that's really true of relationships, you know? There's a chapter in Dusk, Night, Dawn called Can You Love Me Now? Based on the old Verizon commercial where the man's walking all over the property trying to get some reception, saying, “Can you hear me now? Now, can you hear me now?” And the piece is about really kind of decompensating in front of him in public, surrounded by 300 people. And it's like, now you can see that I'm very fragile. I'm extremely brave in some ways and on some days. And I'm extremely fragile and sensitive. Can you love me now? And I got really ugly and mad, can you love me now? I said some things, can you love me now?
Nora: And he could, and he can, and he does. And in your 20s, in my 20s, like, even if we can't verbalize it, or we couldn't have drawn a picture of it, what you want, what every person wants, is to be seen and heard and known, but being known is so excruciating sometimes.
Anne: Being seen. Being seen. It's like the most terrifying thing. I was taught that it was the most terrifying thing on Earth. When I was a kid, you don't let people see what's behind the door of your house, and you don't let people see what's behind the door of your being, you know? I mean, you learn in recovery and therapy, if you want to heal it, you got to reveal it. But I can tell you, that was the number one rule when I was a kid, was do not under any circumstances reveal to anyone outside of this household and best to any of us, you know, suck it up. My mom was English. Carry on. Stay calm and carry on. My mom was kind of a Monty Python character. And I mean, she was a passionate civil rights person. And she became a lawyer. And when I was 15 or 17 or something, and ... but she's also secretly a Monty Python character. And so no matter what, you don't let people see the truth of your being, the truth of your heart. You suck it up, you know?
And so, to let people see you, it was almost life and death, you know? And it is still a default place for me. It's where I land if I'm afraid, you know? I land in shame that I'm being seen for being, like, so gravely imperfect. And so I've had to deal with the shame constantly. But the thing about being in the third third that I love is that starting around 50, I think, maybe early 50s, you still land on these default places of separation from yourself and from life and from God. But you cycle through it more quickly. I might cycle through a shame spiral in three hours instead of three months, you know? Three days. And that's really one of the great blessings of the third third. I think in your early 50s, you start to realize how much shit you carried around in your psychic airplane for however many years old you are. Like boxes, metaphorically, boxes of paper, which are resentments and the lack of forgiveness and untrue ideas about yourself and untrue ideas about life and why we're here and how to live fully. And you realize that you and your psychic plane have just been barely skimming the treetops sometimes and that you're done. You don't, like, by 50, you've lost a couple of younger people that you absolutely cannot live without and somehow have. You've seen that some days it just feels like there's a sniper in the trees that is picking off our most precious people. And so you get much more serious about how we're going to live in the face of our mortality.. I'll tell you a funny story. When I was 50-ish, I called the friends of the San Francisco Public Library and I said, “Can you please bring a van to my house on Saturday?” You know, usually I take them boxes of books that I'm done with. And they came, and I gave them between 400-500 books that I had moved with, some from college, I was only in college two years, but in some cases 30 and 40 years, that I kept on my shelf so that people would think I'm more highly educated than I am, that I thought would make people think I'm much, much more spiritual and evolved than I am. In some cases that people had given me, that I'd either never read or hadn't liked, was never going to read again, but was worried that people would come over to my house and look to see if I had kept the books they'd given me.
Nora: I do this too! God!
Anne: Right? Like, is that crazy enough? And so they came, and we loaded up 400 and something books. Then I moved and then I moved again. Then I moved into the house where I first lived with Neil. Then we moved three years ago into this fabulous ramshackle house that we restored. And on our bookshelves, I mean, there's not enough space for the books we've been carrying around for 30 years. And on the bookshelves, there are only books we love, that we love because just to see the spine of them makes us happy, you know? Those books, and other books that we might reread, and other books that when the young people — Neil's daughter lives with us and my son's here — and books that we want to foist on them and, you know? Only those books, and so I think that there are various ways to do the equivalent of calling the friends of the San Francisco Public Library. You know, first of all, with your clothes oh, my God. I mean, I've had so many clothes in storage that I secretly believe will fit again. They're not going to fit again. And why do I care if they do? Or clothes that I spent or clothes or shoes I spent too much money on, because I absolutely believe that there's something outside of me that's going to fill up the Swiss cheese holes of my soul, even though I know that that is completely an inside job. And I give them away. You know, I'll give a two hundred dollar coat to Salvation Army because we've come to a very, very cold winter. And I don't love the coat. And you know what, these shoes, I hate it. I spent a hundred and thirty nine dollars on them, I remember. And they've never fit right. And when I wear them I'm unhappy. I'm OK for the first hour and then I feel awful, and I give them away to somebody who might actually wear a size eight, and not a size eight and a half, as I now wear.
So there's so many different ways to give away the stuff that is actually a great lightening of your life and your spirit that kind of hurts a little to give away. But you do it, you do it afraid. You do it conflicted. It's like getting your writing down every day. I never sit down — I'm sure this is true for you — I never sit down just full of self-esteem. Oh, this is, if I write again, it’ll be my 20th book. “Oh, it's so exciting to be Anne Lamott.” I sit down I think, oh god. Here we go. And the blank pages are kind of like an un-assaulted ice floe, and I don't write good first drafts, but here I am.
Nora: We write shitty first drafts. You gave us that language. So thank you.
Anne: Yes. Every Facebook post I've written, which is probably 800 words, I write an incredibly shitty first draft of that, and then I write another, slightly better second draft. And then finally I can give it to somebody who can really, really help me burnish it and help me bring it up to the most beautiful piece I can at that time.
Nora: I was going to say, shitty first draft is such a good one. Every other writer I know, we say that to each other. I pass it down to my children. And I think it's also just a good- all of your writing advice is also good life advice, too, which is like, it's OK to not be an absolute expert. It's OK to be struggling spiritually and existentially like it is all, it's all draft work. This is all draft work. Anne Lamott, you are exactly as I imagined you, you are such a gift. I am going to cry. Thank you for being here today. And I have to ask all my guests the same question, which is how are you?
Anne: I'm really well today. This is my very last podcast. I told you, you're my favorite person in America, because you're my very, very last person, and because I was really, really looking forward to being on your show. And so it's the best of both worlds, and to meet you and to know you a little bit now. And it's sunny here. It's the spring and it's not warm, but it's sunny. And I have my very cutest sweater on, and everybody's really busy with their own work. Sam with his podcast, which is “Hello, Humans dot co.” And Neil's got a book out in May. My grandson has his best friend over because we're all vaccinated. And so everybody has something to do that they can do really happily without me. So I'm going to take my old dog for a walk and we're going to both have treats.
Nora: Ohhh, I love it. And Happy Birthday tomorrow. Thank you for- thank you for being here with me.
Anne: Have a wonderful, blessed, dopey day.
In the weeks since I talked with Anne, I’ve been thinking about that idea that shitty first drafts are not just for writing, but for life. And maybe this is a reach, and maybe this is genius, but really all we are doing every day is waking up to another blank page, doing our best to create something beautiful — or at least not awful. And some days, we fail. We absolutely brick it. We shout at our children, or we flick someone off for switching lanes without signaling, or we let our brains fill with the absolute worst thoughts about ourselves or other people. Some days we are brilliant and gracious and it pours out of us so easily we cannot even remember a day when we didn’t feel so beautiful and generous and kind, when we think, “Everyone, take it easy, everyone, relaaaax, it’s just life!” And most days, honestly, are just in the middle. They’re remarkably unremarkable, and the details fade into the mush in the back of our brains because we didn’t save or ruin anyone’s day.
Those unremarkable days, those are so undervalued, so underappreciated. There is so much noise in our world, so many people contributing to and profiting off the idea that life is an endless quest for growth and improvement. That there is a BEST version of your life out there that it would be a CRIME not to aspire to. So exhausting.
There was a line in Anne’s new book, Dusk, Night Dawn, that I underlined and I highlighted. I’m going to read it for you:
This existential exhaustion is everywhere we look these days — in our world, our nation, and in our beloved.
That’s the whole quote. And yeah, it is. It is an existential exhaustion that is not based in our own inadequacy but in the fact that we live in a world where terrible things happen even when we do all of the right things. It is not a me problem, that's a “we” problem, and every time we can see and make space for that pain and exhaustion in each other, we can make space for something else. We can make space for hope. Or growth. For the recognition that there is more. The only guarantee we can give to the people we love is that there is more — more pain, yes, more joy, thank goodness. Whether or not we are “good” or “earn it” or “level up,” there is more because we are more than what we do or don’t do. We are more than what we achieve or do not.
We are more and there is more, even on our worst days.
This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. Our production team here at “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” is Marcel Malekebu, Jeyco -- Jeyco? Jeyyyyyco. Did you get that reference? [Jeyca: No.] Jeyca Maldonado-Medina. Jordan Turgeon. Hannah Meacock Ross. Beth. What's Beth’s last name? [Jeyca: Pearlman.] Pearlman! Beths Pearlman. Her name is Beths. Beths. Plural Beths. There are two Beths Pearlman. There’s actually just one Beth Pearlman. She works with us. Megan Palmer.
Our theme music is by Geoffrey Lamar Wilson. I'm Nora McInerny. We are a production of American Public Media. You can get ad-free episodes and bonus content and more talk about burping at TTFA.org/Premium. That is a way to support our show. And we have merch at TTFAmerch.com.