Anne Lamott and What Dies (and Grows) in the Creative Struggle

If you write, you’ve probably read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. She is the shy, […]

Josh Retterer / 12.4.17

If you write, you’ve probably read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. She is the shy, neurotic, wise, funny, dread-locked, recovering alcoholic, who is a font of sanity and encouragement for many of us engaged in the compulsion of writing. Anne grew up in a family of atheists, but came to faith and got sober — in that order, as that sobriety wasn’t instantaneous. Her descriptions of the struggles and joys of parenting, the messiness of life, and the wonders of being part of a church family are alternately hilarious and weepingly beautiful.

There aren’t many interviews with her, but when they happen, they stick in your memory for a long while after. Anne’s son, Sam Lamott, recently started a podcast, called How to Human. In the second episode, he interviewed his mother. It was amazing.

The interview focused on the struggles of being an artist and creator in today’s world, the commodification of everything, fighting distraction, and the challenges of facing down your inner critic. Anne describes why that’s important.

The problem with the inner critic is, it’s like a misguided helper. It’s trying to keep you from being publicly ashamed or disgraced. It thinks its helping you, but it can be drowning out the voice of creation inside of you.

That’s a beautiful description of the effects that little “L” laws have on us. Disgrace and shame come in the form of fear of failing to live up to the rest of the world’s view of success. Anne simply points to her reason for continuing on with the creative process, despite the challenges encountered, both from within and without — her faith.

I also had God in my life. I felt that if God’s brought you to something, God’s going to bring you through that.

Because writing is so solitary, writers often form little rafts of community with fellow writers or artists to keep each other afloat in the dangerous waters of inner and outer critics. Most days you will find me clinging onto one of those rafts. The mutual support and exchange of ideas is deeply encouraging. The form my “exchange of ideas” usually takes is inundating my little group with podcast episode links. The other day, I sent Anne’s interview to my friend, Mandy Smith. Author of several books, including my favorite, The Vulnerable Pastor, Mandy is also the lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, as well as a guest on The Mockingcast. The Lamott(s) interview sparked a conversation between us about writing, inspiration, and stewarding the gifts God gave us. As writers do, we decided to write about it. Here is what it inspired Mandy to write:

I love Anne’s advice to defiantly plant ourselves in a chair and write anyway, even if what we write is no good. Lately I’m learning to defy the creative struggle in new ways, by challenging the whole foundation of it: scarcity.

I want to believe that the source of all creativity has been given to us. Not only to walk beside us but to dwell within us. We’re filled with the same spirit which imagined pineapples (the colors and textures! the smell! the taste! A masterpiece!) We house the same spirit which shaped music–not just inspiring a song but inventing the whole concept of sound, rhythm, harmony, melody and giving us eardrums for it. The creative struggle tells us there’s not enough brilliance or beauty to go around. How can it look to create, trusting that sometimes something bigger and braver than us will meet us? This is why all artists speak with reverence about the process because they know they started something which some greater force helped them finish. That they themselves somehow were made in the making. Not all of us call that the Spirit of the Living God but all creators know it.

Some of this creative struggle grows from a utilitarian or even capitalist place: What I do has to be published to be valuable and if I’m not sure it will be published, why bother beginning? What if I believed that those seeds which want to spring to life in me were planted by a benevolent being who also wants the fruit of those seeds to nourish others? What if I trusted that he has planted something in me, to grow in the soil of my particular life, to be expressed through my particular gifts, vocabulary and personality? And that he planted partly to give me the joy of saying something back to him and partly because he wanted it to connect to others? If so, isn’t it possible that he can open doors? (If he doesn’t want this work shared, I don’t want to share it.)

And what about the days when that spirit seems absent? If I interpret that silence in me as a sign that I have nothing to offer, there’s shame. When I believe silence is a season to let the ground lay fallow there’s no judgment in the fact that no shoots are showing right now. I can rest in fallow times when I trust that after every winter there has always been a spring. In that winter much grows in me even if it doesn’t yet take the form of words.

All this means a kind of death. Writers have to get accustomed to killing their darlings. Maybe we have to kill even more darlings than we’d prefer, darlings like “my idea of success” and “my control over when and how ideas and creative energy present themselves.” I protect Wednesday to write my sermon. Most Wednesdays things don’t go according to plan. I have to remember: God provided for his people in the desert one day at a time. What if he also has a manna approach with ideas and energy? I’d love to have the year’s sermons already written. He gives them to me in time for Sunday. I’m just looking for ideas for a sermon, but the real learning comes from my submission to that process.

Josh jumps back onto the page.

What Mandy wrote here reminds me of something Flannery O’Connor said:

I do not know You, God, because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

The sheer absurdity of grace seems too good to be true. When God pushes my me-ness aside, we see that grace is indeed both absurd and true! The absurdity comes from the fear of death, because we associate striving against that perceived scarcity, as Mandy mentioned, with creativity itself. The Bible points to a much different reality:

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:10)

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24)

The link between perceived death — i.e., submission to the Giver, and life is something well known to writers and artists. Mandy sent me a couple of excellent examples of this:

Ron Hansen’s novel, Exiles, describes a conversation between poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and a friend. When Hopkins said his work would probably not be published, the friend asked:

“Why write it then?”

In puzzlement Hopkins replied, “Why pray?”

In Corey Latta’s book, CS Lewis and the Art of Writing, Lewis comforts a friend whose work had been rejected:

I implore you, then, seriously, to regard your present trouble as an opportunity for carrying the dying process a stage further . . . . I ‘implore’ because such disappointments, if accepted as death, and therefore the beginning of new life, are infinitely valuable: but if not, are terrible dangers.

Grace is what already has been accomplished on the cross, which, for us, is the ultimate expression of unearned life-giving manna. To paraphrase Robert Farrar Capon, we are safe in His death, so we are free to not only to write and create, but to live!