Study Guide

Bird by Bird Spirituality/Religion

By Anne Lamott


I heard Natalie Goldberg, the author of Writing Down the Bones, speak on writing once. Someone asked her for the best possible writing advice she had to offer, and she held up a yellow legal pad, pretended her fingers held a pen, and scribbled away. I think this was some sort of Zen reference—the Buddhist disciple remembering Buddha's flower sermon, in which all Buddha did was hold up a flower and twirl it, in silence, sitting on the mountain. Me, I'm a nice Christian girl, and while I wish I could quote something kicky and inspirational that Jesus had to say about writing, the truth is that when students ask me for the best practical advice I know, I always pick up a piece of paper and pantomime scribbling away. My students usually think this is a very wise and Zenlike thing for me to convey. Mostly, I forget to give Natalie Goldberg credit. (5.14)

Lamott is definitely a little tongue-in-cheek here, but she's also giving us something more general about her approach to spirituality and religion: she believes that a lot of different belief systems might have something to teach her about writing and life. Just like there are lots of books out there that can teach you something, so are there lots of religions, philosophies, spiritualities, belief systems—you name it.

I told her I thought she'd been very honest, and that this was totally commendable, but that you don't always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it, too. (21.14)

Lamott says this to someone at a writing conference, but it seems to be true of her approach to religion and spirituality (and life), too. She's often more interested in pointing to things she believes to be true than in chopping at things she doesn't.

I got to church and my committee had not yet assembled, but four of the church's elders—all women—three African Americans and one white, were having a prayer meeting. They were praying for homeless children. "Can we discuss my personal problems for a moment?" I asked.
They nodded and I told them all about my airline fears and how many moving parts there were to this trip east. They nodded again. They seemed to believe that between Jesus and a travel agent, things could probably be worked out. (17.12-13)

Apparently, you can be both spiritual and snarky. One reason Lamott doesn't come off as preachy when she writes about religion is that she has a sense of humor about it, and she's honest about her own quirks and flaws.

Let's think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. The alternative is that we stultify, we shut down. Think of those times when you've read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone's soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of—please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. (14.6)

Lamott is seriously invested in this sense of awe, even if she recognizes it might sound a little corny to some. She seems to find this awe in both writing and spirituality, which is one reason why these two things interact for her.

There are moments when I am writing when I think that if other people knew how I felt right now, they'd burn me at the stake for feeling so good, so full, so much intense pleasure. I pay through the nose for these moments, of course, with lots of torture and self-loathing and tedium, but when I am done for the day, I have something to show for it. When the ancient Egyptians finished building the pyramids, they had built the pyramids. Perhaps they are good role models: they thought they were working for God, so they worked with a sense of concentration and religious awe. (Also, my friend Carpenter tells me, they drank all day and took time off every few hours to oil each other. I believe that all my other writer friends do this, too, but they won't let me in on it.) (29.27)

Yep, snark and awe. It's a weird combination, but it seems to work for Lamott since she's able to communicate some of her farewell thoughts about both writing and spirituality this way, as odd as it sounds. Maybe feeling all that awe leads Lamott to have a healthy dose of humility, which allows her also to see the humor in things.

I always mention a scene from the movie Chariots of Fire in which, as I remember it, the Scottish runner, Eric Liddell, who is the hero, is walking along with his missionary sister on a gorgeous heathery hillside in Scotland. She is nagging him to give up training for the Olympics and to get back to doing his missionary work at their church's mission in China. And he replies that he wants to go to China because he feels it is God's will for him, but that first he is going to train with all of his heart, because God also made him very, very fast. So God made some of us fast in this area of working with words, and he gave us the gift of loving to read with the same kind of passion with which we love nature. (Introduction.52-53)

Maybe Lamott is saying here that we decide what we should do in life partly by looking at the gifts we've been given and that there's something awe-inducing about that. She seems to think there's something amazing about this, something that's a bit like the awe some people experience in religion, whether you believe in God like she does or whether you simply find nature and humanity amazing on their own terms.

Truth, or reality, or whatever you want to call it is the bedrock of life. A black man at my church who is nearing one hundred thundered last Sunday, "God is your home," and I pass this on mostly because all of the interesting characters I've ever worked with—including myself—have had at their center a feeling of otherness, of homesickness. And it's wonderful to watch someone finally open that forbidden door that has kept him or her away. What gets exposed is not people's baseness but their humanity. It turns out that the truth, or reality, is our home. (26.11)

Lamott finds in this quote a key to what makes a character interesting: a sense of homesickness for a truth they haven't fully experienced yet. Lamott gets this idea from someone at her church, but maybe it makes sense in storytelling, too: if a character isn't looking for something, isn't feeling a need to find some sort of home or experience some kind of truth, then where is the story going? Maybe a character needs some sort of longing to be interesting.

My friend Carpenter says we no longer need Chicken Little to tell us the sky is falling, because it already has. The issue now is how to take care of one another. Some of us are interested in any light you might be able to shed on this, and we will pay a great deal extra if you can make us laugh about it. For some of us, good books and beautiful writing are the ultimate solace, even more comforting than exquisite food. So write about the things that are most important to you. Love and death and sex and survival are important to most of us. Some of us are also interested in God and ecology. (15.11)

Lamott seems to think there are some fundamental things that almost everyone is interested in, whatever their beliefs—and she seems to think these are pretty important things to write about. But she also recognizes that beliefs about God and nature matter to a number of people, and she is one of them. Maybe that's why she writes about God and ecology, but in a way that recognizes the humanity of people who may not share her perspective.

Or look at the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who is, for my money, the sanest person currently on earth. He says simply, "My true religion is kindness." That is a great moral position—practicing kindness, keeping one's heart open in the presence of suffering. Unfortunately it does not make great literature. You will need to embroider it a little. Otherwise you will have a one-sentence book, and potential agents will look at you as if—as the Texans say—you are perhaps not the brightest porch light on the block. (15.10)

This quote is so Lamott. She shows a bunch of her hallmarks as a writer—respect for spirituality even if it's not the same religion that she practices, passion for an ethical stance, a recognition that telling a great story is different from having a great moral, and, of course, a little friendly sarcasm.

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