Big Think Interview With Anne Lamott

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Anne Lamott: Anne\r\nLamott, I’m a novelist. 

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Question: When did you\r\nfirst learn to write seriously? 

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Anne Lamott: My\r\nfather was a writer, so I grew up writing and reading and I was really\r\nencouraged by him.  I had some sort\r\nof gift and when it came time to try to find a publisher I had a little bit of\r\nan “in” because I had his agent I could turn to, to at least read my initial\r\nofferings when I was about 20.  But\r\nthe only problem was that they were just awful, they were just terrible stories\r\nand my agent, who ended up being my agent, was very, very sweet about it, but\r\nit took about four years until I actually had something worth trying to sell.

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Question: What is your\r\nworking method like?

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Anne Lamott: For\r\nthe last 35 years, since I was full-time, since about the age of 20—even\r\nthough 15 of those years I was also doing other jobs to support my writing,\r\nlike cleaning house and teaching tennis, and what not—my father really taught\r\nme that you really develop the habit of writing and you sit down at the same time\r\nevery day, you don’t wait for inspiration.  You sit down, it helps your subconscious understand that it’s\r\ntime to start writing and to relax down into that well of dream material and\r\nmemory and imagination.  So, I sit\r\ndown at the exact same time every day. \r\nAnd I let myself write really awful first drafts of things.  I take very short assignments; I will\r\ncapture for myself in a few words what I’m going to be trying to do that\r\nmorning, or in that hour.  Maybe I’m\r\ngoing to write a description of the lake out in Inverness in West Marin, where\r\nI live.  And so I try to keep\r\nthings really small and manageable. \r\nI have a one-inch picture frame on my desk so I can remember that that’s\r\nall I’m going to be able to see in the course of an hour or two, and then I\r\njust let myself start and it goes really badly most mornings; as it does for\r\nmost writers. 

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And the difference between a writer who toughs it out and\r\none who doesn’t is that you push through the parts where you know that you’ve\r\njust written seven pages when all you’re looking for is one paragraph.

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Question: What new ground\r\ndid you try to break for yourself as a writer in your new novel?

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Anne Lamott: “Imperfect\r\nBirds” is the third book in a trilogy about these characters, Rosie and\r\nElizabeth Ferguson.  Rosie is the\r\nchild we first meet in the novel, “Rosie,” who is six or seven years old and\r\nwhose father has just died. \r\nElizabeth is her mother who’s very tall and depressed and has a little\r\nbit of money from the husband’s death and has no idea who she is in the world\r\nexcept she is very fond of Rosie. 

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And in the second book of the trilogy, “Crooked Little\r\nHearts,” Rosie is, I think, it’s been a while, almost 14 and a champion tennis\r\nplayer and starting to get very into the world of boys and that she really isn’t\r\nan attractive—she doesn’t feel like an attractive girl.  She is tiny and not developed.  Her best friend is just this cheesecake\r\nof vanilla beauty, Simone, and ends up pregnant by the end of the book. 

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But in “Imperfect Birds,” I wanted to see where everybody\r\nwas a few years later.  I wanted to\r\nsee if Elizabeth had been able to stay sober, I wanted to see what Elizabeth’s\r\nmarriage to the wonderful novelist, James, was like and I wanted to see Rosie\r\nreally spreading her wings and going down some really dark paths.  There are bad drug habit—drug problem\r\nin the county where I live, in fact in all of California, and in fact in\r\nprobably in all of the United States among teenagers who discover things like\r\necstasy and then prescription drugs. \r\nAnd they’re just stealing and a lot of the kids are being prescribed\r\nAdderall for ADD and ADHD and of course they love it because it’s very nice\r\nmellow speed, and it helps them with their college exams. And we’ve had a huge\r\nproblem with OxyContin in our area and a number of deaths of my son’s\r\npeers.  And so I wanted to write\r\nabout it.  I wanted to say, what’s\r\ngoing on here?

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Question: How can fiction\r\nexplore social issues in ways that nonfiction can’t?

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Anne Lamott:\r\nWell, it’s a very complex issue and it has many causes and roots and ways to\r\napproach it from, so you really couldn’t do it any kind of justice in 1,500\r\nwords or something.  There are a\r\nnumber of characters who are a different manifestations of... the answer to who\r\ngets into drugs, is it the kids you think of as players?  Well, Rosie is a 4.2 student headed to\r\na very good college, who is beautiful, she’s a great tennis player, she’s just\r\na wonderful person, and yet she’s got the genetic predisposition because\r\nElizabeth and her father are both alcoholic.  There’s just no level at which you can achieve that you’re\r\ngoing to feel good enough about yourself to not wonder if you feel a little bit\r\nbetter with Adderall or ecstasy or if you might be more attractive to boys if\r\nyou are willing to do this or that with them, or this to them, or for\r\nthem.  And then her other friends\r\nare very different than that.  One\r\nfriend has been off to rehab already and one friend comes from a very nutty,\r\nsort of space-case mother, who I don’t think has any problem with substance\r\nabuse. 

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So, it’s an epidemic in this nation and it’s killing our\r\nkids.  Two weeks before I came\r\nhere, a girl... I went for a hike before church and when I got to the ocean, there\r\nwere 150 people searching for her body, and she'd been partying with her\r\ngirlfriends by the ocean and had wandered off and wasn’t found until the next\r\nday when she washed up at Muir Woods. \r\nSo, it’s a national epidemic. \r\nIt’s had a huge impact on my own family.  I mean, my son’s friends, some have died.  One of them is at Napa State probably\r\nfor a very long time, or forever, and he was the golden child; the golden boy\r\nof the high school.  And I wanted\r\nto go really in-depth into it.  I\r\nwanted to view it from the mother’s point of view, I want to view it from the\r\npoint of view of the community, and how scary it is to do anything with\r\nteenagers that might mean they stop loving you or thinking you’re the cool\r\nparent.  And I wanted to write it\r\nfrom inside the child, the young adult, who is making it all seem like it’s the\r\nparent’s problem, or fault.

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Question: How do you make\r\nyour characters seem real to you?

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Anne Lamott:\r\nWell, that’s a good question.  I’ve\r\nknown these people for a long time. \r\nI started Rosie in 1980, so that’s 30 years ago; I was going, oh, that’s\r\n15 years ago now.  Is that 30 years\r\nago?  1980—oh my God.  And I can honestly say in this case,\r\nthis little girl with black curls and enormous Siamese blue eyes came up to me\r\nand tugged on the sleeve of my shirt and I saw her and I knew her name. 

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And it turns out, my father had a character named Casey\r\nFerguson 30 years before that in one of his novels and I don’t even remember\r\nreading it, but I loved the name. \r\nI thought, this was great. 

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And then I wanted to write about alcoholism because I’m a\r\nsober alcoholic, but I wasn’t at the time; I got sober in 1986.  But I was so fascinated by what was\r\nhappening in my interior landscape that this wonderful, adorable, religious,\r\nhigh-achieving person simply could not stop drinking, if I had one.  I wanted to write about that partly for\r\nmy own salvation.  And then all of\r\na sudden one day, there was a knock at the door of the Ferguson house and they’re\r\na lonely family; the father has died and Elizabeth, the mother, is shy and\r\ndepressed.  And there’s this big zaftig woman with a kind of Gibson Girl haircut and she’s new in the\r\nneighborhood and she has decided that she and Elizabeth are her new best\r\nfriends.  And so, then one day, she\r\ntricks Elizabeth into going to a backpacking trip, but she really minimizes\r\nwhat it will involve and Elizabeth is just enraged; she’s not a backpack sort\r\nof girl.  But they meet these two\r\nguys and get drunk with them up at the campfire, and she ends up marrying\r\none. 

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So, little by little they reveal themselves to you if you’re\r\nopen and receptive to what would be the truth of their lives and their arc and\r\ntheir thinking and their growth, or their setbacks.  My main problem is that over and over\r\nagain, I try to get all my characters to say stuff that I think is so witty or\r\nerudite you know, so that everybody will go, whoa, that Anne Lamott is\r\nlike so brilliant, and then I have to go through and take it all out.  I do a final draft where I go through\r\nand I take out all the lies. 

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But you get to know them little by little and you don’t\r\nalways know.  It’s like real life,\r\nyou don’t know the answer, you don’t know, God or life or your own psyche doesn’t\r\nhave a magic wand and you ask something and all of a sudden receive the answer,\r\nit’s a process.  And, little by\r\nlittle, I can answer the questions of my characters predicaments and what they\r\nmight reasonably come up with as a response to crises.

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Question: How do you\r\nbalance autobiography and fiction?

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Anne Lamott:  Everybody assumes that almost everything I write about that has a teenager in it is a\r\ndirect telling of something that Sam went through, which is not the case.  I mean, I’m the teenage girl drug\r\naddict.  I love drugs.  I smoked the non-habit-forming\r\nmarijuana every day for about 20 years, and so people—I’m powerless over what\r\nother people assume to be either fact or not, and so people assume that stuff I\r\nwrite about in novels happened... and mostly the emotional truth of the characters\r\nare autobiographical because I’m the only person I know all that well, and\r\nmostly what happens in the novels never happened in real life. 

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Then with “Imperfect Birds,” I had five young women who have\r\nall been very druggy, and have mostly grown out of it with one exception, and I\r\ndid very long and extensive interviews with them and I would ask them, why\r\nwould you do this with the guys, what do you get in return?  Why would you do that drug if it keeps\r\nleaving you so crazy and in so much trouble?  I know the answer to that because it’s mood altering and\r\nanything is better than feeling small and kind of afraid all the time.  

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But I had these five sources that really helped me\r\nunderstand the psyche of the American druggy girl and a high-achieving druggy\r\ngirl.  And then I have been a\r\nparent of a teenager, and I talked to a lot of the other parents and I said,\r\nwhy did we not—how did we not notice this or that or the other?  Why were we so afraid?  So, Sam has certainly given me bad, bad\r\nnights and left me wanting to just claw at my own throat with exasperation and\r\na feeling that no worse parent had ever existed, except for maybe Jeffrey\r\nDahmer’s mother. 

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But I think that’s what all novelists do.  You draw on your own material and you\r\ntalk to as many people as you can.

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Question: Before you went\r\nsober, did you feel that drink or drugs provided spiritual insight? 

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Anne Lamott: I can\r\nmostly say that the writers that I know that have continued to drink or use,\r\ntheir lives are just kind of disgusting messes right now, not to sound\r\njudgmental.  But I mean they’re\r\nheartbreaking.  And certainly drugs\r\ntook me to places; they were like portals.  It’s kind of a cliché, but they were like portals to altered\r\nstates of consciousness into ways of imagining the world, or seeing a world\r\nbeyond this world, or seeing a world beyond this world that I might not have\r\ngotten to unless I discovered meditation and a very deep, intense spiritual path\r\nbased on contemplation and meditation. 

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But you know, I was young.  I quit drinking and drugs when I was 32, so I cycled through\r\nrelatively quickly.  And no I don’t\r\nthink I would have this spiritual sense of exuberance and profundity that I—not\r\nthat I have, but through which I understand the world if it weren’t for drugs,\r\nalcohol, and poetry.  I can\r\nhonestly and genuinely say those three things.  But at the same time, probably 90% of the time, I was\r\nstoned.  I was so wah, wah—I was\r\nlike an idiot.  I was just\r\nstoned.  I would always wake... and\r\ndrunk.  I was drunk every night\r\nfrom about 18 on.  But I loved\r\nMethedrine, for instance, and I loved cocaine.  I took possibly too much LSD, and I loved prescription\r\ndrugs, and the non-habit-forming marijuana.  But I’d get good and tanked up and I’d start to write, like\r\nyou do if you’re a writer and so I’d stay up really late scribbling like mad,\r\nlike the Unabomber.  And then I’d\r\nwake up in the morning and it would just be pathological.  It would just be tragic, really.  It would be scrawl. \r\nAnd yet 10% of it might be stuff that was really great.

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And so the proportions weren’t excellent, but the fact is, I\r\nthink it was just the natural order of things.  The natural course of my life.  My family tends to be pretty alcoholic and drug-addicted.  Both of my brothers are\r\nclean are sober also, and a long time, 20-plus years.  And I think drugs are part of the magical possibilities of\r\nyouth and I wouldn’t be here if I had continued with it.

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Question: Is writing\r\nitself a kind of altered state?

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Anne Lamott: For me, being a writer is not an altered state.  It’s very ponderous, and very—it’s like being a shoemaker.  You know, shoemakers stick to your last and you stay there working over your last, and it’s pretty drudgy in a lot of ways.  But for me, reading poetry and reading the great works of the canon that we were reading in the ‘60s and the ‘70s and ‘80s was mind altering.  I mean, you know what it’s like, people blow your mind with what they are able to catch and present, and I would say that most of the writers I have loved and been influenced by and had been blown away by were drunks and drug addicts and, you know, I love the Beat poets.  I love Allen Ginsberg as much and in the way that I love Virginia Woolf, or Auden. And a lot of the people I loved the most were suicides.   So, I am drawn to people that are\r\nnot going to shy away from the very dark, scary stuff of the human condition\r\nand in a lot of cases people need alcohol or drugs to create poetry and poetic\r\npose that can take you so far out there where you are still able to recognize\r\nyourself and then to bring you back home where you’re not the same person you\r\nwere when you left.

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Question: How did you get\r\nsober?

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Anne Lamott: How\r\ndid I get sober?  Well, I had—when\r\nmy dad died when I was 25, my younger brother had been 20, my brother Steve,\r\nand he worked in landscape architect, he was a laborer, and one of his best\r\nfriends had a father who was sober, named Jack.  When our dad died, Steven moved in with this guy Jack and\r\nthere were all these sober people around his house all the time talking about\r\nhow much they loved being sober and prayer and meditation and helping others,\r\nand they always had these horrible cakes from Safeway that I happen to really\r\nprefer to good bakery, because I mostly just like the icing, and they always had\r\nthis swill, this terrible coffee. \r\nAnd I was always drinking too much of this swill late at night, whereas\r\nif I drink coffee at night, I would sleep again several days later.  But, I got to be friends with this\r\ncharacter named Jack and he’d been a total lush like I am, and he said, you\r\nknow, “We’re not drinking, one day at a time, and everything that we’d ever\r\ndreamt has happened for us.”  And I\r\nsaid, “Well, I’m very religious, very spiritual without your little Safeway\r\ncakes and swill." But like most drunks that had gotten sober, I got to the point\r\nwhere I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.  You know?  So, I was getting to a point where I was living in a way\r\nthat involved waking up sick and with a lot of shame and just kind of animal\r\nconfusion.  And one day I called\r\nJack and said, “What do I do?”  And\r\nhe said, “Why don’t I come over and we’ll talk.”  So, that’s how I got sober and that’s how I stayed sober as\r\npeople said, “Why don’t I come over and we’ll talk, and drink our bad coffee\r\nlike communion together.Our bad\r\ncoffee and our Safeway cakes.

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Question: What is the\r\nspiritual path you’ve taken since sobering up?

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Anne Lamott:\r\nWell, I became a Christian before I got sober. So I was a drunk, bulimic\r\nChristian. I wondered into the biracial church across the highway from where I\r\nlived when I was still drinking very heavily and using.  And the only reason I went in to this\r\nchurch, which happened to be Presbyterian, was because it was across the street\r\nfrom a flea market and I was there a lot of Sunday mornings when I was so hung\r\nover.  And when I’m hung over, I’m\r\ndrawn to greasy food and lots of it. \r\nAnd then I would hear this gospel singing or the songs of the Civil\r\nRights Movement.  When I grew up,\r\nmy parents were old lefties, I grew up on the Weavers and Pete Seeger and Joan\r\nBaez, and they would be singing a lot of the Civil Rights anthems, and so I’d\r\nwander in because I’d run out of good ideas, and no one at my church hassled\r\nme.  There were about 40 people and\r\nstill are only about 40 people. \r\nBut they didn’t try to get me to sign on the dotted line, or tell them\r\nwho shot the Holy Ghost, they just let me sit there and—they just let me sit\r\nthere.  And the air was\r\nnutritious.  Because there were\r\npeople who had put their money where their mouths were and they’d done the work\r\nof social justice and they were true believers.

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And I lived in the Bay Area, and still do, in the years of\r\nAllen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at\r\nthis founding City Lights.  My\r\nfather loved the Beats and worked on a magazine that was very avant-garde in\r\nthe Bay Area with Evan Connell and a couple of people that were just literary\r\ngiants.  It was called Contact magazine, so I’d always—and\r\nAllen Watts was around on his progressive Bay Area radio stations like KPFA. And so I grew up with the consciousness that Christianity was for people who\r\nwere really stupid, but that there was something magical in the religions of\r\nthe East and that Buddhism was okay, and Hindu was okay because—Hinduism was\r\nokay because Ginsberg was so wildly passionately, sensuously East in his\r\nunderstanding of things, and so joyously so.  And so I’ve always understood that meditation had to be part of—or\r\nwas part of the natural path and so I’ve always sort of dabbled in it.  And the main expression of my spirituality has been this little church that I go to, and my sobriety.  The path of recovery and—I’m a terrible\r\nChristian and meditating is very hard for me, and I do it.  I do it badly, like I do a lot of\r\nthings.  I believe in doing things\r\nbadly.  I believe in listening to\r\nthe—what calls you from your heart and your spirit and if you do it badly, like\r\nlearning to dance, you do it badly or you’re going to kick yourself when you\r\ngrow old and you meant to do it.

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Question: Do you like\r\nthat you're known as “The People’s Author?"

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Anne Lamott: I\r\ncan honestly say there is nothing I would rather be known as than “The People’s\r\nAuthor.”  I’ve never heard that,\r\nand I’m thinking you got it from some blog from some guy who is like completely\r\nwasted on ecstasy and cheap red wine when he said it.  But if it were true, I would love that. 

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And, being a person who believes that all truth is paradox\r\nand contradiction, I just get a sucked in as any writer into the jungle drums\r\nof publication and wishing that I were on the “Today” Show this morning instead\r\nof David Remnick and how it’s not fair and how it’s not fair that he’s not this\r\nand that and he’s on “Fresh Air” and so I have a kind of bitterness that goes\r\nalong with this sense of being “The People’s Author,” and really feeling like a\r\nmissionary most of the time and just wanting to tell people... the truth of my\r\nexperience is that we are all a lot more alike than we are different. And that\r\nif I share something that seems kind of intimate, or autobiographical, it’s\r\nbecause I assume it’s true for you too. \r\nAnd I’ve told it so many times and everybody said, “Oh yeah, me too.”  I’m not telling anything that isn’t\r\ntrue for most of us.  And it just\r\nhas to do with it.  We can seem\r\nsort of spiritual and hippy-dippy like I think I come across, and tree hugger\r\nand San Francisco and all that. \r\nAnd at the same time be sort of enraged that the New York glitterati are\r\ngetting the great spots in the media the week that I’m on tour on the East\r\nCoast. 

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Question: Do you\r\nconsciously try to win more fans?

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Anne Lamott: I would say the most important thing is to pretend that you’re\r\nabove all of that.  But certainly,\r\nI’m just finding this week—we’re taping this the day of publication—and I’m\r\nfinding just so much manipulation and kind of desperado stuff going on inside\r\nme, and I’m trying to suck people into my web, and I’m trying to use old\r\ncontacts kind of in the most casual way to try to get them to shoehorn me onto\r\nCNN maybe later today after I sign stock at the Riverhead office.  So, I find a lot inside me. 

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The thing is, I’ll be 56 at the end of the week and I don’t\r\nact on it as much as I used to. \r\nBefore, I would have done it all and I would have just been dancing as\r\nfast as I could to try to suck in and please everyone and seduce everyone and\r\npush everyone harder to get—and now I just feel too tired, and I’m kind of achy\r\nfrom the long flight and so, the impulse is there, and probably this side of\r\nthe grave.  It just comes with the\r\nterritory; it comes with the turf of being a well-known writer is that I have a\r\ndisease called "More."  And if I\r\nhave a huge audience, I’d like a bigger audience; maybe slightly a slightly\r\nmore illustrious audience.  Maybe\r\nif Susan Sontag were alive she would want to be my best friend.

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Question: Does a\r\nsuccessful writing life require personal integrity?

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Anne Lamott: I\r\ndon’t think I could make that argument. \r\nIn that a lot of the writers I loved best have had disastrous lives,\r\nlives that were full of secrecy and lives that were about getting the surface\r\nto look right and teaching at the right university and having the right crowd\r\nof friends and colleagues and contacts.... and I would say that I think, you know,\r\nthat’s a very interesting question. \r\nI think I could write about it much better than I could talk about it\r\noff the cuff.  It’s the kind of\r\nwriting I do.  I’ve chosen to try\r\nto be honest and to try to share my experience, strength, and hope, and what\r\nhappens is, I tell all this stuff and a lot of it is just genuinely not that\r\ninteresting.  And my experience as\r\na writer is that you really do write seven and eight pages to find the paragraph\r\nyou were after all along.  And\r\nhonesty is not necessarily interesting. \r\nI don’t want to hear about your dreams or your acid trips, probably...\r\nunless you make them really interesting. \r\nAnd if you have a voice and \r\nyou’ve developed the skill over the years in the same way a pianist\r\nwould develop the skills starting with the scales... if you’ve developed a way of\r\ntelling stories that draws me in and makes me trust you—like Spalding Gray,\r\nsay, then he would tell stories that were not necessarily about very, very far\r\nout stuff, but I would be riveted, but there’s another life, a very, very\r\ntragic life lived by one of the funniest storytellers in the last 20\r\nyears. 

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So, honesty can be devastating, certainly to people in your\r\nfamily are not hoping that you’re going to be a writer who uses\r\nautobiographical material, who suddenly decides he or she is going to tell the\r\ntruth of what family life was like in the early ‘60s, or during the Eisenhower\r\nyears.  I have been somebody who\r\nhas not written a great deal about the truth of my family’s life.  I have not—I so have the goods on\r\npeople.  I so have the goods\r\non my closest friends, and I don’t use it because my closest friends are more\r\nimportant to me than anything.  I\r\ndon’t write about the intimate details of my cousins and aunts and uncles, and\r\nmy mother and my father... because it’s not right to, for me. 

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Other writers have and they do feel that, just—Faulkner\r\nsaying that if you ran over your grandmother in the interest of writing a\r\nbrilliant novel that threw the lights on for thousands and thousands of people,\r\nit’s a fair trade.  I don’t feel\r\nthat.

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Question: What are the\r\nbest writing exercises you know?

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Anne Lamott: When\r\nI used to teach writing, I had lots of them, but writing fiction, short\r\nstories, and novels is really about creating—having to create some characters\r\nthat we’re really interested in really quickly because the trick is, you’ve got\r\nto get people to turn the page, unfortunately.  Maybe in the books they’re only going to read the first two\r\npages.  So you create a couple of\r\ncharacters that right away are interesting.  You put them in a situation where there’s tension and where\r\nthe poor reader feels, “Oh God, I wonder what happens now?”  So I used to have people getting—people\r\nwho couldn’t stand each other getting stuck in elevators, or metaphorically\r\ngetting stuck in elevators. \r\nGetting stuck in a situation where they really don’t want to be\r\ntogether.  Or, something is found,\r\nlike in “Blue Shoe,” the novel from a number of years ago; something that is\r\nfound as meaningless.  It’s a\r\nlittle tiny rubber blue shoe.  A\r\nhigh top, a Converse, I think, that with a perfectly delineated shoe lace, it’s\r\nalmost microscopic in size in that little round label that doesn’t say Converse\r\nbecause it would be a copyright violation.  Those little things somebody got in a gumball machine, and\r\nyet to try to figure out why the father held onto it all those years, opens up...\r\nlike in “The Wizard of Oz” when the movie goes from black and white to\r\ncolor.  It throws the family’s\r\nhistory into color.  And that’s not\r\nalways a good thing.  It’s always a\r\ngood thing, but it’s often very painful and disturbing and distressing.  And it’s often like the house of cards\r\ncoming down, however, in color. 

\r\n\r\n

And so that’s a situation I would often ask my students to\r\nwrite about, finding something that you instantly know is like—can’t think of\r\nthe word.  What’s that thing—a\r\ntalisman.  Or either something that\r\nis protective, or that’s something that sets the hero’s journey into\r\nmotion. 

\r\n\r\n

My experience of exercises is that they’re great when you’re\r\nin class or workshops, but for me, I kind of work daily on exercises, but that’s\r\nshort assignments again.  I’m going\r\nto say to myself... like the other day I was actually writing and I\r\nhad gone to a bilingual Good Friday service in San Francisco at one of the old\r\nmission churches from the days when Spain ruled over Mexico and then they\r\nestablished the mission system in California.  It’s a magnificent church and it is truly the people’s\r\nchurch.  And it is very bilingual\r\nand it’s very middle-class and poor. \r\nAnd half of the mass is in Spanish, which I don’t speak, and half is in\r\nEnglish.  And it’s so much richer\r\nwhen you can’t understand the words because it takes you to places inside\r\nyourself and inside the community expression of grief and hope and the great shalom that you are welcome both by God and by this one community.  And I was trying to write about it and\r\nit’s about huge themes.  But it was\r\nabout a one-hour service.  And so I\r\nmade that the title, "Bilingual Good\r\nFriday," just for now and I started writing about it.  But what it did was it made it possible\r\nfor me to tell the story of a mother with a 8-month old grandson asleep in her\r\narms when he wasn’t spluttering and making loud farting noises, usually at times\r\nof silence.  And with a best friend\r\nwith a 40-year standing, in a community of almost entirely Hispanic people.  It had a beginning, it had a middle,\r\nand it had an end, and half of it was in a language I don’t speak. 

\r\n\r\n

And so the exercise was just that, to capture it.  Now, I could have written 25 pages, but\r\nyou personally, I know are not going to want to read it.  And I don’t know that you’re a\r\nChristian, I don’t know if you want to read about my family, and why I have\r\nsuch a woman as young as myself has such a young son has an 8-month old\r\ngrandson with her.  But, so I wrote\r\nit and I wrote a really terrible first draft of it, which is always a first\r\nassignment.  And then I went back\r\nand I took out the stuff that wasn’t any good, or was kind of overwrought, or\r\nthat was preachy, or that was lies. \r\nAnd so what I was left with was about five pages.  And it was, I can say, it’s not\r\nwell-written and I wrote it right before I left for tour, but it’s exactly what\r\nI had hoped to create. 

Recorded April 6, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen
\r\n

\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n

A conversation with the novelist.

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Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

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  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
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Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe

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Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.

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