In January 2006, I found myself in Washington, D.C., at a conference with the very serious title of “Politics and Spirituality, Seeking a Public Integrity.” The crowd of around 1,300 was comprised mostly of graying, well educated, left leaning, liturgical Christians, many of whom had been peace activists since the 1960s. This was the type of audience for whom the first speaker’s opening line, “Welcome to the Imperial City!” just killed. The first two featured speakers were old hands with well honed rhetorical skills, and after they finished the crowd was feeling somewhat inspired but a bit restless—a little bored with the same ideas, the same words most had heard many, many times before. However, as a young man rose to introduce the third speaker, buzzing whispers of anticipation began to bounce around the room. After his final comment about the healing grace of humor, the crowd broke into a lively applause. Slowly, a small white woman with spiky dreadlocks, sporting stylish horn-rimmed glasses that gave her a cool, “I’m an author” look, took the stage. She grinned around her slight overbite and, for just a second, the tip of her tongue graced the gap in her front teeth. She began, “My goodness all these intelligent, caring Christians in one room. I can hardly believe it.” This prompted hearty applause and laughter. After acknowledging the people in the “cheap seats”—the overflow room—she continued, “Before I begin, I should apologize to any Republicans who may be here. If you’ve read my stuff, you know who I am and what I’m about. If you haven’t... well, it’s not my fault you are here.” This was Anne Lamott, looking and sounding very much like I had imagined she would.
For those unfamiliar with Lamott, she is a leftwing, feminist, naturalist, politically active, Presbyterian, single mother—whose most prized material object is a fraying red cord blessed by the Dalai Llama that she wears around her right wrist. She is a walking contradiction of formative forces and literacies. Although Lamott has written several novels, she is best known for her non-fiction writing. In her essays she captures the paradoxical challenges of being a female intellectual in our culture while maintaining her sense of humor, making her audience laugh, and occasionally cry, with her. She pulls from multiple strands of experience and ideologies, weaving rhetorically complicated essays that reveal the humor and enlightenment in things both mundane (her forty-ninth birthday) and heartbreaking (losing both her father and best friend to cancer).
Lamott’s writing is web-like and feels organic, as if she simply has written whatever has come into her mind. That this is not the case is made clear in her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. This reflective and instructive book—a must-read for anyone who writes or teaches writing—takes its title from an incident when her brother, doing the classic kid thing, left an assignment about birds undone until the weekend before it was due. Immobilized by his panic at the size of the project, he looked to his father, silently pleading, “But how will I get this done?” The answer, “Bird by bird, buddy, just take it bird by bird.”
That story is part of a spiraling introduction to her discussion of the writing process, a discussion that is mingled with bits of collected poetry, prose, and her own life experiences. The largest theme in Bird by Bird, which she circles back to several times, is probably the most serious issue writers face: learning to trust your own voice and giving yourself permission to use it. She writes,
Mark Twain said that Adam was the only man who, when he said a good thing, knew that nobody had said it before. What you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning. All of us can sing the same song, and there will still be four billion different renditions. (181)
However, as much as Lamott writes about finding one’s voice, and her “make no excuses” approach to addressing the conference, in her writing she oft en deflects the most profound statements onto other speakers. It is always her father, her Jesuit friend Tom, her Pastor Veronica, a poet, or some other person who speaks with the most confidence and wisdom. She always represents herself as the perpetually screwed-up, neurotic female character, even though she is the author, the one who has cobbled the voices together, finding meaning along with the humor in the ridiculous, sometimes maddening, circumstances of her life.
This is in keeping with what Karlyn Kohrs Campbell has identified as the “feminine style of rhetoric” (1989). Although Campbell specifically examines the oratory of early feminist speakers, her work is useful in considering how any woman writer builds a relationship with an audience. Although this style is not used exclusively by women (for example, a close analysis of most contemporary male stand-up comedians reveals that they are masters of this form of story telling), it did arise out of women’s experiences as they struggled to find an acceptable public style of oratory. Before these earliest of feminine speakers could present their anti-slavery and suffragette positions, they had to convince the audience, both male and female, that they had a right to speak at all. Instead of relying on the classic structure of rhetorical argument—which most of these women were not familiar with anyway as it was a subject taught at universities they were not permitted to attend—they found that a conversation binding the audience to the speaker was the best strategy for being heard.
Campbell describes this style as the process of craft learning as applied to the rhetorical situation. Whereas the traditional male model for rhetoric is more confrontational, often described as a type of battle to be won, the feminine model is based on a long tradition of passing on life skills, of keeping traditions alive, and of sharing advice. The rhetorical voice is more personal in tone and relies heavily on personal experience and anecdotes. It invites the audience to test their experiences against the experience of the speaker/ author in order to achieve agreement through identification with the author. The goal of feminine rhetoric is not to achieve a sense of victory over the audience—to persuade them that one’s position is correct—but rather to empower the audience, to inspire them to believe that they have a credible voice—that they matter, their opinions matter, and thus to negate the insecurity that allows the status quo to operate unchallenged. The representation of insecure Anne, who is always in the process of learning through experience and reflection, is also always tacitly asking for acceptance so that we—both Lamott and her audience—can come to an understanding about the topic at hand, be it the writing process, politics, childrearing, family relationships, experiences as a woman in our culture, or spirituality. She uses the voices of others to provide the wisdom, or sometimes controversy, in her writing as a way to deflect the appearance of confrontation with her readers.
Lamott is unflinchingly honest in her discussions—a requirement for humor to work, and for an ethos of credibility particularly in the feminine style when so much depends on the audience coming to identify with the author’s experiences. Yet it is still shocking to read a woman who openly discusses the more unpleasant bits of life. Good girls—especially Presbyterian church ladies—are not supposed to talk about their drug use, alcoholism, eating disorders, sex lives, abortions, or disgust and loathing at the patriarchal nature of our current political climate. In her essay “Ham of God,” Lamott tries to calm herself on the morning of her forty-ninth birthday. This is a difficult birthday for women anyway, but for Lamott it was an especially trying time due to her frustration with the United States’ involvement in Iraq. She writes of her struggle to meditate and pray:
I closed my eyes, and got quiet. I tried to look like Mother Mary, with dreadlocks and a bad back. But within seconds, I was frantic to turn on the TV. I was in withdrawal—I needed more scolding from Donald Rumsfield, and more malignant celebration of what everyone agreed, in April 2003, was a great victory for George W. Bush. So we couldn’t find those stupid weapons of mass destruction—pick, pick, pick. I didn’t turn on the TV. I kept my eyes closed, and breathed. I started to feel crazy, and knew that all I needed was five minutes of CNN. I listened to the birds sing outside, and it was like Chinese water torture, which I am sure we don’t say anymore. (Plan B, 7)
Her humor is found in the self-effacing reporting of her thoughts and actions. Once readers identify and laugh with the speaker, they are not so apt to be defensive when the conversation turns to the two most notoriously confrontational topics in our society, politics and religion. Plan B is an angry book.
Lamott tries to hold to her faith in a peaceful, loving God in a culture that ignores its own social problems and is increasingly violent. In most of the essays in this text, her anxiety is resolved as she is able to see God quietly at work through her relationships with others. “Ham of God” is a reference to a series of odd circumstances, including her inability to find any sense of peace at home, that lead to her winning a ham—a meat product she refers to as “pink rubber”—which she then is able to give to a friend in desperate need who also happens to absolutely love ham. The story of how it all happened is also linked to a meditation on the desert: a place where there seems to be no life at all—until the rain comes and you see that life really is all around you all the time. Nature remains her most steadfast anchor to her beliefs, and it is unusual for her not to interweave that evidence into her narratives.
Lamott’s writing is layered and interconnected so that individual essays revolve around single incidents and can be read as stand alone pieces, but they are also tied to themes, characters, and events in other essays, oft en in multiple texts. This overlapping extends even to the titles of her last three books of non-fiction, the earliest work being Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, followed by Plan B: More Thoughts on Faith, and her latest, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. The repetition of “Thoughts on Faith” communicates to her readers that she is continuing and deepening the conversation, updating us on the people she has introduced in the past and letting us know how she is coping with the changes in the world since we last checked in. Grace (Eventually) is not quite a sequel to Plan B or Traveling Mercies, any more than those books were sequels to Bird by Bird or Operating Instructions, a work that revolves around the birth of her son Sam, and her first non-fiction book. Although the attentive reader will recognize the same people and events in each text, there is no linear pattern to how the essays appear.
In step with the feminine style of building a relationship with the audience, her stories revolve and evolve each time they are retold. For example, Grace opens with an essay that takes the readers back to Bolinas, California, in the early 1970s, where a twenty-something Anne is dealing with multiple addictions and a failed, toxic relationship that leads to an unexpected moment of found grace and spiritual awakening. Although the awakening is not from a Christian source—and if it were she never would have read it at the time—it represents a step toward what she eventually will discover about grace. The essay sets the theme of the collection—the sudden appearance and then gradual development of grace in one’s life—and establishes the tone and style of a feminine argument. Her strategy is to connect to the audience by telling a revealing story about herself, sharing a very intimate and real moment while also making a statement that there is such a thing as grace and here is how it works. New readers are able to understand the essay as a stand alone piece, but her loyal readers will connect that moment to others they already have read. She discusses her life in Bolinas many times in the course of her books, but this is a new story, a new revelation. The result is that reading her work is like building a friendship. In general women gain knowledge of each other in similar fashion, paying attention to new details, new twists, and new insights through ongoing conversation.
Additionally, most of her essays are structured inductively, another hallmark of the feminine style as identified by Campbell. The threads of thoughts, events, and reflection often appear only tangentially connected until a crucial point near the end of any given piece when everything falls into place. In “Junctions,” which appears late in Grace, she spends several pages setting up her “thesis.” She has woken up on a “bleak Sunday” when the morning news is full of dreadful predictions of the imminent launch of North Korean nukes. She heads to church, where she finds little comfort, and so decides to take a hike in the California hills, which have grown brown in the summer heat. As she moves through the piece, she discusses politics, environmental issues, motherhood, and aggravation at people who don’t properly curb their dogs. All these observations suddenly coalesce as she considers the ancient majesty of the hills and states:
Saint Paul, who can be such a grumpy book-thumper, said that where sin abounds, grace abounds, and I think this is Paul at his most insightful, hopeful, faithful, when it comes to politicians and to me—if by “sin” we mean strictly the original archery term of missing the mark. I realized just then that sin and grace are not opposites, but partners, like the genes in DNA, or the stages of childbirth. (241)
She concludes the essay with a memory of how the pain of labor is also connected to acts of great mercy and kindness on the part of those who were with her during that event. How sips of juice gave her hope and energy when she felt she was about to give up. The linking of a spiritual ideal to the earthly example of childbirth is a uniquely feminine move and gives the essay meaning, eventually.
Although this style can be very appealing to some, it has been known to irritate readers with a preference for more linear storytelling. I became aware of the irritation when I used Lamott’s essay “Overture: Lily Pads” from Traveling Mercies and Richard Rodriguez’s “Credo” from his book The Hunger of Memory in my literature class to discuss writing about spirituality. Rodriguez, who was born and raised in a devout Catholic home, writes elegantly about the church and how it structured his everyday life. “Credo” means we believe, and that is what Rodriguez writes about, discussing his belief and his relationship with that belief. He uses the image of the calendar as his structural metaphor and the essay reads as a straightforward chronological retelling of events. Lamott’s essay, in contrast, uses several metaphors from nature, the controlling one being that of the lily pad and the complicated jumps she has made from place to place on her own spiritual journey. She explains the metaphor in a brief paragraph at the beginning, then the essay jumps to an image of a lone palm tree growing in a railroad yard, where it has no business being. This eventually turns out to be a reference to herself and her spiky hair, blooming in the most unexpected of places—a Presbyterian church. In between comes a series of scenes where she is taken in by various people of faith—Catholics, Christian Scientists, Jews, Buddhists, Episcopalians—who are very different from her intellectual, atheistic, politically active parents. Each group shelters her, teaching her something, until she jumps to another scene of challenging moments: her struggles with alcohol and cocaine, serially dating married men, the death of her father, the birth of her son, followed by more interaction with people of faith, and back and forth. It is lovely, funny, and complicated. I am not claiming it is better than Rodriguez’s piece, just very different.
My students loved discussing the pieces and were taken in by the openness of both authors’ representations of such a personal topic. However, a good third of the class was made up of young men who were seniors studying aviation. Although this was a sophomore-level class, they had waited until the last moment to take care of their English requirement. To a person they responded that Lamott had really cool scenes and that they loved her honesty. Actually, they were quite shocked by her honesty. However, many couldn’t follow her structure and were confused by the piece. They preferred Rodriguez’s writing because “it made more sense.”
The majority of the young women in the class however loved the piece and wanted to read more. The structure was a non-issue. During a class discussion, when one of the young men started explaining his confusion, one of the girls just looked at him with disgust and said, “Come on, she told us what she was doing up front. Guys never listen.” The fact that she said “listen” instead of “pay attention” or “read well” is, I think, more than a dialectical quirk. She caught on to the conversational quality of the writing, and whether consciously or not, she was listening to her reading and reacting to the feminine style of the rhetoric in a feminine way.
The difference between the authors’ styles was also felt in the general mood of the class. The discussion of the Rodriguez piece was more tense, and not because his essay lacks humor, although it is not as intentionally funny as Lamott’s writing. The Catholic students were very edgy about any criticism of “Credo,” because it offers a fairly celebratory take on being Catholic. To say something negative about it was to say something negative about their sense of community, their sense of identity. Lamott’s depiction of Catholicism is much less positive. Her first lily pad is her inter action with a Catholic family and their mother who “wore each new baby on her breasts like a brooch” (5). She describes her interaction with them with great affection, and a little fear, recalling that their father was also an alcoholic who frightened her one night when he stormed into her friend’s bedroom and began slapping the girl on her face and shoulders. She writes, “Looking back on the God my friend believed in, he seems a little erratic, not entirely unlike her father—God as borderline personality” (7). I thought this line would surely start a small riot, but surprisingly, they all laughed.
“Lily Pads” is at its core a conversion story, but one that doesn’t hammer the audience with the need to convert. When Anne fi nally breathes her “Sinner’s Prayer,” “Fuck it: I quit . . . All right you can come in” (50), the students, regardless of faith tradition or non-belief, were able to understand how she got there without feeling they had been directly confronted. Her humor, which so often is self-deprecating, combined with her appreciation and respect for all the people of faith and non-faith who had influenced her journey, makes the moment understandable. She isn’t preaching: she’s just talking.
Humor really is a healing grace—just like the young man who introduced Lamott at the conference on social justice said. During that speech Anne referred to laughter as “carbonated holiness” and as the only way to get through the challenges put on us by society and self. Whether she is discussing women’s issues, politics, or issues of faith, we laugh, and Lamott is able to make her point, not because she has set herself apart as the grand observer of life but because she chooses to portray herself as a down and sometimes dirty participant who asks the hard questions, oft en struggles with the task at hand, and is the first to admit her own imperfection. She often quotes Leonard Cohen who sings, “There are cracks, cracks, in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Because she is willing to do just that, let her own cracks show, her writing creates appealing, rhetorically interesting, and honest representations of the complexity and somewhat neurotic nature of American life.
Laurie Britt-Smith is a doctoral candidate in English and former Assistant Director of the Writing Program at Saint Louis University. She is currently on dissertation fellowship.
Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs. Man Cannot Speak for Her: A Critical Study of Early Feminist Rhetoric. New York: Praeger, 1989.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor, 1995.
_____. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Pantheon, 1999.
_____. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead, 2005.
_____. Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead, 2007.
Rodriguez, Richard. “Credo.” Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. Boston: Godine, 1982.