July 17, 2007
Book 'o Mine: bird by bird
Any writers passing through here today will recognize this book. bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life cracked my world wide open about 10 years ago. I was living in a house with no dishwasher, you see. I spent a lot of time in my kitchen listening to audio books on a gigantic cd/tape player atop my fridge that my parents had given me for Christmas. It was later broken by a troubled teen I volunteered to house for a week under the counsel of a misdirected pastor, but that's neither here nor there, and this whole paragraph could have been trashed after my first draft.
But it was that handy tape player that brought Anne Lamott's great, wise and friendly voice into my life. And there, with my hands deep in warm bubbles and my eyes drifting out my kitchen window into my neighbor's, I was set free from fear and perfection. Well, in the realm of writing, that is, she's not a miracle worker.
Anne told me it was okay to write totally "shitty" stuff. Her word. It was okay if a person came across my tablet, read the words I had emblazoned upon its pages with all seriousness and such hope and thought, "Ugh! Who does this idiot think she is? A writer?" (Same goes for my blog.) It was okay according to Anne Lamott, because every writer's first drafts are horrible. All writing starts with an idea that requires time and effort and reworking. It's okay to suck. So that was immensely comforting.
She also gave me permission to write just for the sake of writing. Not for publication or accolades or proving anything to anyone, but just because I want to write, have to write. Just because that is who I am. A writer at heart. Period. bird by bird offers much more than just emotional support. Technical support, practical support, humorous support, moral support. But the thing that I remember most was the permission that Anne Lamott granted me to be me. I needed that.
Soon after I heard her book, I found out that she was speaking at Border's in Philadelphia. Just minutes away from my home! I was thrilled. Johnny Depp strolling past my house couldn't have pleased me more. I wanted to see my friend, the lady who had once sat on my refridgerator and said, "Jennie, just do it and shut up." I stood in the crowd, squeezed in among books and display cases, listening to her speak and joke, laughing and delighting in her every lyrical sentence, holding her new book Traveling Mercies and a note I had written to her on my grooviest note card.
When she finished her talk, she sat down at a table and we formed a line to meet her and get her autograph. When it was my turn, I handed her the book and as she signed it, I held out the letter and said, "I wrote you a little note. It is not; however, any reflection of my abilities as a writer." She looked up and laughed and said, "Oh! Of course not!" And laughed again. Anne Lamott got my joke. We had a moment.
I was on a high going home, but that didn't stop me from imagining her reading my note in a plane somewhere high over Tennessee and rolling her eyes, "Oh puleeze. Why did she bother?" And then she'd take a last sip of her Ginger Ale and lean her seat back to sleep, glad to have that whole Philadelphia gig over with so she could get home to Sam, her beloved son.
Years later, when Sean was a tiny babe in arms, I went to see her again in a huge stone church in Pennsylvania. We sat way up in the balcony, snuggled into the corner, with Sean nursing and sleeping away in my arms. All I remember from that night is the compliments I received on my perfect, quiet babe.