I find it difficult to accept advice from writers whose books I have never read. I realize this is my own fault, but it must be mentioned as it plays into my review of the rest of the book. I find Lamott, as a writer, incredibly generic, her patterns of “funny” are easy to see through and her examples of “whimsical” writing annoy me.
I am like the students she complain about. The ones who enter bright-eyed on the first day of class put up their hand and ask “so how do I get an agent?”. Lamott does not like these kinds of students. Despite using her introduction to explain how her father was a writer and she basically grew up in a writing community and inherited his agent, she still dares to explain to them; most writers never get published; you shouldn’t write just to get published; the act of writing is reward in itsself. While this is a valid point it is a tad contrite from someone who just used her father’s agent. I am not doubting the fact that the work Lamott finally had published was worthy, but I am infuriated by the lack of respect for writers who would like the same opportunity.
Underneath this is the essence when writing books about writing books. Somehow most writing advice ends up mostly boiling down to just write. Lamott does manage to do this in a rather inspiring way, if only because she shows you all her shitty drafts and it definitely makes you feel less afraid to start writing shitty drafts. It’s an interesting theory that she has; that all writing starts as shitty drafts that are then written and rewritten. And it’s a scary method to employ in your own writing; writing all the bad stuff. Partly because you immediately become a worse writer that you thought your were. Mostly because the concept of shitty first drafts removes any excuse you may have had not to write; it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be there.
“You have made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to you is interesting- editor to Anne Lamott”
Literature does not always have to be structured by a coherent narrative, but it seems essential to Lamott. She cares about the characters and she cares for plot. And it must be realistic and humorous. Essentially it plays into the age old question of whether artists are born or made. Lamott falls squarely into the last category with advice on how to just sit down and write and tips and tricks for staying focused and finding the story. Writing is a craft like everything else, learn to put words on paper, practise making them better; more coherent, and then watch the world and tell their stories.
So before you pick up this book you must make a choice; are artist born or are artists made? Only if you believe the latter will you derive pleasure from reading this book. Unless you of course dislike hurried language, forced humor and descriptions that sit like veneer on top of actual people. Seriously, there are three pages that essentially boil down to “if you write about someone you know give him a small penis and he’ll never come forward and identify himself”. I suppose it is meant to be funny, but it isn’t. Mostly it’s just disrespectful towards the characters.
As a guide book it was only helpful in being a physical reminder to actually write. Which I suppose is the most important thing if you want to be a writer, but to become an artists is something else entirely, something you cannot learn nor grasp from the writing of Lamott. In the words of Kerouac:
“Genius gives birth, talent delivers. “
You may become talented by the following the guidelines in the book and you may deliver by sitting down and actually writing, but you’ll have to find the genius by you in you. Lamott certainly draws a blank in that regard.