By Carolyn Flynn
For red Ravine
SAGE Editor, author and redRavine.com contributor Carolyn Flynn recently attended “An Evening with Elizabeth Gilbert and Anne Lamott” on the UCLA campus.
To loosen up before writing a new book, Elizabeth Gilbert invites one person to join her and live inside her head. She says she wrote Eat Pray Love as a letter to her friend Darcy. “You should never begin unless you have in mind one person,” Gilbert says. “It’s good if you choose somebody who likes you.”
Gilbert is before an audience at Royce Hall on the UCLA campus with Anne Lamott, author of Operating Instructions and Traveling Mercies, and they are sharing tattoos and exchanging metaphors because that’s what writers do when they get together. “Like my boots?” Gilbert says, clicking her toes together, then her heels, “I’m acting like a second grader,” she says.
Gilbert has just introduced Lamott and everyone is laughing. My son is slapping his knee and nearly falling on the floor. Gilbert confesses that she was so giddy when Lamott blurbed her book that she drank two margaritas and ate an entire bag of Halloween candy. When she called Lamott to thank her, she thought about chirping out that charming anecdote, but then, she says, “I realized that might not be the most professional way to introduce myself.”
Now, with 4 million copies of Eat Pray Love sold, their lecture agents have brought them together for two nights of conversation — here at Royce Hall and the next night on Lamott’s home turf in Marin County, California. It’s a rare evening that’s been waiting to happen for about the past four years, starting back with that crisis point in Gilbert’s life when she was going through a highly charged divorce and a gut-wrenching breakup with her transitional relationship (“It didn’t work. No one could see that coming,” she says, deadpanning). Gilbert was planning her trip to Italy, India and Indonesia that would be the tableau for Eat Pray Love and pitching the idea to her editor.
But a book about spirituality was a tough sell. We’re talking about people who say “fuck” eight times before breakfast but can’t say the G-word, Gilbert says. And forget about the J-word. She told her editor, “But don’t worry, I feel like I can tell that story, kind of like Anne Lamott would.”
And so the seed of a great pairing was born. Gilbert breaks away from the format that the writers’ lecture agents prescribed for them and introduces Lamott to the audience. “If she had not done this, there wouldn’t have been a path,” she says. “She proved to the world that you can write about divinity in a way that does not make intelligent people want to projectile vomit.”
That blurb that prompted Gilbert’s ecstatic binge on fun-size M&Ms meant a lot. “If she liked the book, if she did blurb me, then it was a stamp of authenticity: It’s safe to read this.”
Thoughts on Faith
Then Lamott reads her story, “Ski Patrol,” from Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. Again, my son’s sides are splitting with giddy laughter, maybe because he relates to Lamott’s son’s embarrassment about her feeble attempts to ski, a lack of grace he can easily picture in his own mother. In the story, Lamott takes a rather ungraceful and ill-advised leap from the chair lift and lands in a contorted heap in a mound of snow. She has no other choice but to ask for help, she says, “something I force myself to do every four to five years.” But she believes that help will always come — eventually. For instance, she says, “America will heal from the Bush years — eventually.”
After her reading, the two writers sit in comfy chairs like we’re all just in their living room. Lamott launches the conversation with, “So what’s your favorite question for an interviewer to ask you?” But she follows with this question, before Gilbert can answer: “Are you on any particular spiritual path?”
Gilbert admits to “cherry-picking” in Eat Pray Love but says we should not be apologetic about embracing a diversity of spiritual beliefs. Spirituality is evolving, and many of the current structures aren’t a perfect fit. If she had to say just one, it would the yogic path, which led her to the ashram in India. “Buddhism makes the most sense intellectually, but it doesn’t grab my heart,” Gilbert says.
Part of her needs the messiness of not having just one path, Gilbert says, but she tells Lamott she admires her for being anchored in one church community, St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City, California. “You have one place that’s your home,” Gilbert says. “I admire that. While drinking from many wells.”
Lamott, who describes her church as the one with the scraggly Charlie Brown Christmas tree and the ragged hearts, says it was just the right place for her. “I am very devout, but I don’t have certainty or conviction. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty.”
Though many people look to her for wisdom, she says she’s unqualified to answer spiritual questions that the greatest minds of the world have explored, such as how to explain suffering. “I’m just a post-alcoholic, post-menopausal tired person. I don’t know.”
Lamott’s down-to-earth spirituality is easy to embrace. “Like everybody else, I forget it. I think things into the ground.” But it’s very simple. It’s about how you live and how you respond to suffering. All traditions know this. “When you see suffering, you don’t look away.” Lamott was raised in an atheist home with a strong social justice orientation, so her faith is through the lens of helping others. “If I want to feel really loving, I need to do loving things,” she says. “Faith without works is dead.”
Gilbert notes that when she examined the arc of Lamott’s work, she saw an evolution from Operating Instructions, Lamott’s memoir of the first year of her son’s life, which came not too long after she got sober. Lamott was a single mom who hadn’t planned on raising a baby boy on her own. Gilbert notes that in Operating Instructions there were “so many shredded edges,” but now Lamott has raised a son to adulthood and written three books on faith and people are coming to her.
But Lamott won’t say it’s easier for her. “When I wake up in the morning, I’m mentally ill.” All of her obsessive-compulsive disorders and addiction tendencies have woken up already and made the coffee and they’re sitting on the bed. “I have written so many books. People think it goes well for me.” But she says, “Humor and laughter are carbonated forms of holiness.”
On Writing: A Work Ethic and a Little Grace
Neither writer says it’s easy to write. Neither says she has any discipline whatsoever. Gilbert tells a story about the poet Ruth Stone, who would receive poems fully formed in her imagination. Her challenge was racing up from the strawberry fields back to the house to get a pen and paper and get it down before it left. To this, Lamott says, “I’ve never heard of Ruth Stone until now, but she is now my mortal enemy.”
For example, Lamott says, it took her two weeks to write the 1,500 words in “Ski Patrol.” Her first prayer in the morning, when she’s greeted with all of her demons is “God, help me get out of the way so that what needs to be written can be written.” For her, the process is to work really hard to get the “shitty first draft” that she writes about in Bird by Bird, her book about writing, and the rest is getting out of the way. “Everything is five or six drafts.”
Gilbert calls it the “angel and the plow mule,” harkening to her Calvinist work ethic Connecticut upbringing. “This is my job. I’m the plow mule,” she says. She believes that if she works hard enough, the angel will come along and put the moving sidewalk under your plow.
“For artists, the enemy is perfectionism,” Lamott comments to this. When you are writing, you are finding out slowly what it is. “You have to un-learn everything they told you. You have to waste paper.”
The Auntie Brigade
Gilbert has not taken the path of motherhood, and Lamott asks about that. Gilbert attributes much of her angst in her 20s and early 30s to grieving that. She knew she wasn’t going to have children, by choice.
She says when you examine any human settlement in any culture, any time, you’ll find a very consistent 10 to 20 percent of females who don’t have children. It’s so consistent, that she has concluded that it’s a genetic necessity to have a cadre of adult, caring, compassionate women who do not have their own children. She calls it the “Auntie Brigade,” and she likes to think of herself as a “sparent” — a spare parent. “I feel a kinship with those women,” Gilbert says, adding an aside that she has since married her sweetheart from Eat Pray Love.
“What’s the most important thing you know?” Lamott asks her.
“Gentleness,” Gilbert says. She’s learned how to be gentle with herself, like the “older sister, older me” in Eat Pray Love. This is the older, wiser self who will say, “You want to do that? Well, that’s OK. You know it didn’t work out so well the last time. But if you really need to do that, you can do that.” She’s learned to trust that wise counsel, which grants her free will with compassion.
“You haven’t asked, but I’m going to tell you,” Lamott says. “What’s the most important thing I know? We’re all afraid.”
Lamott, who takes the spotlight for a bit to sound off on the presidential election, says in America, we’re all walking around with “this sheet metal loneliness.” American culture is about disguising that. “In America, if you do fall into the abyss, you go shopping. Go to Ikea and buy a throw rug.”
This “sheet metal loneliness” is protecting us from the dark night of the soul, Lamott says. We are very fearful, “but truth and beauty win out. The right thing will happen.”