Writing That's Too Honest Can Be "Devastating"

Unlike Faulkner, the "Imperfect Birds" author doesn't believe you should be willing to run over your grandmother for the sake of a great novel.
  • Transcript


Question: Does a successful writing life require personal integrity?

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

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

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

Recorded April 6, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen