I had the privilege last week once again this year of attending the Frederick Buechner Writers’ Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary. We were a moderately diverse group of men and women brought together by our deep desire to write, our Christian faith (delightfully heavy on the progressive side), and our love for Fred. Buechner, now 91 and retired in Pawlet, Vermont, is a Presbyterian preacher, memoirist, and novelist who writes about life and faith in an inimitable way. People who have sat in the pews of congregations I have served have heard a lot of Frederick Buechner in quotes.
One of the keynote speakers was Anne Lamott. Among her other works, Anne has written several amusing, appropriately self-deprecating memoirs of her childhood in a dysfunctional family, her years of alcoholism and drug addition, her coming to Christian faith, and her honest reflections on the joys and heartaches of being the single mother of Sam, now also a published author. The first in the series of charming, witty, but at the same time biting, memoirs are Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and Grace Eventually.
Speaking to a room full of writers who aim to communicate faith and hope in their work, Anne pointed out that the most important item in the writer’s toolbox is “your butt”.
I was a little stunned by that, but having several of Anne’s books I should not have been distracted by her irreverence. What she meant, she went on to explain, was “keeping your butt in the chair, no matter how blank is the page in front of you. “You can’t take the easy way out and get out of the chair. You’ve got to stick to it, even if all you write that day are a few lonely words.” Goes for life in general, doesn’t it, as well as writing?
A couple of other gems she shared with us:
I try to write the books I would love to come upon that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness – and that can make me laugh.
About her insistent self-revelation in her books, even of the painful times:
Nothing heals us like letting people know our scariest parts: When people listen to you cry and lament, and look at you with love, it’s like they are holding the baby of you.
Another remark that spoke to how we live our lives as well as to how we approach our writing:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.
Anne is a veteran of Alcoholics Anonymous, and much of her wisdom about life and God she gleans from A.A.:
My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way, I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear.
I am not writing to try and convert people to Christianity. I am just trying to share my experience, strength and hope, that someone who is as messed up and neurotic and scarred and scared as I can be fully accepted by our dear Lord, no questions asked.
Thank you, Anne Lamott, for an evening of hearing the truth spoken, and for the years of being surprised by grace in your books as a reader who oftentimes, also feels “messed up and neurotic and scarred and scared.”
Until next time, friends, live each day to the fullest.