Writing memoir: Three things to learn from Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott wrote one of the most beloved writing book of all times, Bird by Bird, but she has also had great success as a writer of memoirs.  Writing memoir often means writing about family and other real people. Lamott’s honesty and self-deprecating humour are instructive to any writer interested in tackling the memoir form. Here are three things you can learn about writing memoir from Lamott:

  1. Lighten the story with humour when dealing with angsty themes

In her first memoir, Operating Instructions: A Story of My Son’s First Year, Lamott’s is unashamed to share her anxieties with her readers:

I have these secret pangs of shame about being single, like I wasn’t good enough to get a husband.

With humour, she tackles her own foibles:

I’m probably just as good a mother as the next repressed, obsessive-compulsive paranoiac.

Memoir is about exposing ourselves, and Lamott displays a rare courage as she lets the reader into her day-to-day life as a single mother and the ways in which the sudden life change leaves her alternately depressed and euphoric.

2. Write as though you’re talking to your best friend

Lamott also has a unique voice, one that is wry and sometimes sarcastic but ultimately kind. Readers engage with her because she sounds like the best friend we wish we all had; in Bird by Bird she reminds us that sure, we might know one person who produces perfect first drafts, but she surely lacks a rich inner life. She reminds us with humour of the ways in which we try to compensate for our own worries about our inadequacy with jealousy toward others. There is a sense in her books of deep humanity and acceptance for the imperfections of herself and others.

3.Don’t make it about getting even

Some memoirs have famously attracted negative attention because the families and loved ones of the memoir writer have felt themselves wrongly portrayed and attacked in print. Lamott has never set out to pen a misery memoir about her own triumph over the terrible thing others have done to her. She writes unflinchingly of her own shortcomings combined with a gentle compassion toward herself and others. Nothing is off-limits to Lamott from her struggles with alcoholism to her strong religious faith.

Have you read any of Anne Lamott’s memoirs? What do you love about her writing?

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