Anne Lamott is someone who finds writing inspiration in many places, including nature, the seemingly mundane details of daily life, the deaths of friends and animals, and the roles faith and spirituality play everywhere. In addition to seven novels, she has wrestled the big issues in nonfiction works like Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith and Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
But her latest book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, sprang from an almost offhanded remark, and a publisher’s hearing it.
Lamott will give a free reading and talk in the main Akron-Summit County Public Library at 7 p.m. Tuesday, with a brief reading from the book, some talk about “my book and about writing and about my faith” and “a very long, luxurious period of question and answer, which is really what I think people enjoy most.” Sales and signing of the book will follow.
The new book came about while Lamott was giving a talk in New York City about Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son, a collaboration with her son Sam.
“Somebody asked about prayer, and I said, oh, the only prayers I ever need are ‘Help, Thanks, Wow.’ And my publisher, who is not a religious man, was really taken with it, with those three words, and asked if I wanted to do a short book … about prayer. And so I did it.”
The slender volume has an introductory passage about prayer, a conclusion dealing with “Amen,” and in between essays about the three prayers. “Help,” as Lamott says in the book, is not about forestalling devastating events as much as it is about surviving those events: “Help us walk through this. Help us get through.”
“Thanks” (a shorter version of her former prayer, “Thank-youthankyouthankyou”) is for expressing gratitude “for any unexpected grace in my life,” big or small. And “Wow” is the appreciation of “gorgeous, amazing things [that] come into our lives when we are paying attention.” The word wow, Lamott notes, is the same size as awe, and shaped like it with w’s and short vowels.
“I’ve been saying ‘Help’ and ‘Thanks’ for 20 years,” said Lamott, 58, during a telephone interview from her California home. “And about 10 years ago I realized that, whenever you can get outside, you end up saying ‘Wow.’ You don’t look up at the starry sky and say, ‘Ho-hum.’ ”
Humor and anger
Like her other books, the new one has humor, flashes of self-deprecation and anger. Plan B was especially angry at then-president George W. Bush. Lamott, active in her support of President Barack Obama, still sees anger in others now. “Half of the country is just crushed and defeated right now,” she said. But there’s more to it than the election results.
“I think people are really overwhelmed. … Just by the era. The stakes. The terror in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, that the weather is obviously shifting, that there is a huge danger abreast. That people are overwhelmed and exhausted by the amount of news and information and noise. … People are in pain from the exhausting tempo and requirements of the modern era. … It’s awful to see the country in so much pain.”
But, she said, “I think it’s something that prayer and spirituality alone can address.” And what does she do to cope? “I try to get my sticky mitts away from the iPad and the BlackBerry. Some days go better than others. I try to turn off CNN. I get out for a hike every single day, just by hook or by crook, even when I don’t want to — maybe especially when I don’t want to.
“And I believe in joy. And I believe that you can stop hitting the snooze button and have an awakening wherever you are. … You can still seek and find peace. And there’s a lot of stuff in the book about how I actively try to seek that rather than to stay sort of stoned and strung out on my telecommunications empire, which is mostly the iPad and BlackBerry.”
And, of course, she writes, although she finds fiction much harder than nonfiction. She feels a nudge toward a writing idea, but “my nonfiction doesn’t take anything like the focus and concentration and years, time put in, that a novel takes. Every so often, and I hate when it happens, I feel a tug on my sleeve, and” — she laughed — “I know what it wants. It wants me to open a new file and to get a brand-new notebook and start scribbling down ideas and possibilities. … I’ve learned to pay attention to the tug.”
With nonfiction, she said, “I talk and think so much, and speak so often to groups that all of sudden I know that I want to put this or that into words. … And it’s just so much easier.”
The nonfiction also creates a bond between Lamott and readers, who get looks at Sam (who was also the subject of Lamott’s Operating Instructions), or her grandson Jax, from Some Assembly Required, not to mention Lamott’s own family and friends. Asked if there are things she will not write about, she said: “I don’t write about my family’s dirty laundry. I don’t tell family secrets. People think I write so confidentially and stuff, but no one really knows anything all that interesting about me. I’m obviously wound a little tight, and I’m a little worried, more worried than the average bear. But the first one or two concentric circles out from the center of my life are very private. … By the time I write anything, I absolutely know that it’s universal, and I’m just sharing my details.”
The approach has worked remarkably well for her — one big “Wow.” When we talked, she admitted to being tired from a book-publicity trip and had a couple of stops planned before she came to Akron. She’s the sort of name author who can get a full-page interview in Time magazine, and asked her impressions of cultural figures like Honey Boo Boo. (She knows her from magazines but still had not seen the show when we talked.)
Even with all that fame and attention, Lamott tries to keep a grip on her better self, grounded in her faith and prayer. In the book, she says there is actually a fourth great prayer: “Help me not be such an ass.” She says that may be discussed at another time. But why not in the new book?
“I think partly because it’s not great for the title.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.