Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with author Anne Lamott (@AnneLamott). Through her best-selling books, which include Operating Instructions (an account of her son’s first year), Bird by Bird (her classic book on writing), and Help, Thanks, Wow (a celebration of prayer), Anne delves into what makes us human. She explores the wide experience of life that unites us: birth and death, parenthood and family, faith and doubt, love and loss, forgiveness and hope.
Lamott has been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship and has taught at UC Davis and writing conferences across the country. She is an inductee of the California Hall of Fame and the subject of Academy Award-winning filmmaker Freida Mock’s documentary Bird by Bird with Annie (1999).
Her most recent book is Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. I’m very excited for this episode and I’m going to skip my usual preamble to jump straight to the guest. My guest today is Anne Lamott. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @AnneLamott. That’s A-N-N-E L-A-M-O-T-T. Anne uses honesty, empathy, and humor to write about our world in her beloved and best-selling books like Operating Instructions, an account of her son’s first year, Bird by Bird, her classic book on writing — and I will have a fair amount to say about that — and Help, Thanks, Wow, a celebration of prayer, Lamott delves into what makes us human.
She explores the wide experience of life that unites us. Birth and death, parenthood and family, faith and doubt, love and loss, forgiveness and hope. In each of her 19 books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide, Lamott brings her distinctive mix of bracing candor, clarifying insight, and refreshing humor to convert serious subjects like addiction, motherhood, loss, and faith into human truths we can all share. She’s the author of several essay collections on faith, including Traveling Mercies, Grace (Eventually), and Plan B as well as several novels, including Imperfect Birds, Blue Shoe, and Rosie.
Lamott has been honored with a Guggenheim fellowship and has taught at UC Davis and writing conferences around the country. She’s an inductee of the California Hall of Fame and the subject of Academy award-winning filmmaker Freida Mock’s documentary Bird by Bird with Annie from 1999. Her most recent book is Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage. Annie, welcome to the show. It’s so exciting that you are here and we’re finally connecting.
Anne Lamott: Thank you, Tim. I’m so honored. And I just want to say, I think my son takes me a lot more seriously because you were interested in having me on —
Tim Ferriss: Wait until he hears the backstory. And I was very happy to meet Sam just a few minutes ago before we started recording. And the backstory is as follows. When I was working on my first book, 4-Hour Workweek — the blessing and curse that that title has always been — but at the time, pre-publication, working on this book and I made it about halfway or two thirds of the way in and realized, “Holy shit. This structure of the entire latticework that I thought I had created so perfectly is not going to work at all.” And then I proceeded to promptly have, in retrospect, it was probably a complete nervous breakdown. Began self-medicating with copious amounts of caffeine and a little bit of alcohol at night. And went into this spiral of self doubt and loathing and was absolutely convinced I was going to have to throw in the towel, return the advance, lick my wounds, and move on.
And someone gifted me Bird by Bird. And this cannot be the only time you’ve heard this, but it proved to be an invaluable life raft or maybe some type of resuscitation device, maybe both. And it is, I would say in no short measure, one of the most important components that allowed me to finish that book. Furthermore, the years following led me to meet many people, including friends like Ramit Sethi. And when he was writing his book, he also crossed this Rubicon and landed in the territory of self-loathing and was going to do the same thing. He was going to quit. He just thought there was no way out. He was trapped in a maze, I gave him Bird by Bird, he was able to finish and his book became a New York Times bestseller.
And you must hear this all the time. And I’m going to ask a question that no doubt you’ve been asked before, but I have to ask, what do you think it is about Bird by Bird that affected so many people so deeply? And certainly that’s true of many of your other works, but in this particular case, what do you think it is that has that type of effect on people?
Anne Lamott: I think it’s because I didn’t try to con people into thinking that if they just got a book finished, that my agent would want to take a look at it by the end of the week and that it would almost certainly be published. And that then all the Swiss cheese holes inside of them would be healed and they’d be well, and they’d get that FDA stamp of approval and be validated. And then their parents would start to respect them. I said, “None of that’s going to happen all of that as an inside job.” But I’ll tell you a funny story. When Sam’s little boy, who’s 12 now was five, I was teaching his kindergarten class a writing workshop. And instead of saying “shitty first drafts,” I said, “really poopy first drafts.” And the kids loved me. And after I was done, my little grandchild came up to me and he leaned in and he sounded like Tony Soprano.
He said, “Oh, Nana. That was terrible.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “You told people you would teach them how to write a book, but you only taught us how to write one page.” And that’s really what I can help you do is the one chapter on shitty first drafts. So I don’t try to teach kids or grownups how to write really, really well. I just teach them to stop not writing. I teach to keep their butt in the chair and to write badly. And that all first drafts of any book you’ve ever read by the authors you esteem most began as unreadable first drafts. And I teach people to take it really small, Bird by Bird. Is it okay if I tell the story?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, please. I would love for you to tell the story just so people know the genesis.
Anne Lamott: Well, my older brother — I was like a super superstar achiever in school and my older brother hated school. And he was kind of a rebel. And in California, in the ’50s and early ’60s, in fourth grade, you wrote two term papers. One was the Sacramento paper, that’s our state capital. And the other was on birds. And you had to write all year, all semester, a paper on birds. And my brother hadn’t started. It was due on a Monday, and on a Saturday, he admitted to my dad that he hadn’t started. And my brother was a tough guy and he was in tears. And my dad sat down with him and put his arm around him and he said, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. First you read about chickadees and then you write a paragraph in your own words about chickadees and then you draw a picture. And then you take pelicans and you study up on pelicans, and then you write a paragraph or a passage on pelicans.”
And I never ever forgot that. And then years later, probably 20 years ago, so in my forties, I heard E.L. Doctorow say that writing was like driving at night with the headlights on. You could only see a little ways in front of you, but you could make the whole journey that way. And I think that is the most profound advice I can offer anyone on any topic. That you can only see a little ways in front of you and you can make the whole journey that way. And another thing that I think helped people when they read Bird by Bird was the chapter on perfectionism and how perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. It’s the voice of the enemy. And if you listen to it, it keeps you crazy for your entire life because we all fall short. You’ve written books and you think you’re creating this golden and crystal palace that people can walk inside of and see all of truth and beauty and reality.
And you kind of end up — your books and my books, all of them are kind of shantytowns and like in the [inaudible] the peace marches where people set up tents and thought it made sense to bring their dogs during the rainstorm. And that’s a miracle to have written a shantytown. And so I think these ideas of not knowing what you’re doing and letting yourself do it really badly and to try to help grind down that critical voice. I’ll just mention my husband’s work here. He’s Neal Allen. He wrote Shapes of Truth. And the work he does with people in these Shapes of Truth is taming the inner critic. And what his position is: “You’re never going to get rid of it. We don’t get over very much here.” What he does with people is he has them bring forth the inner critic and actually just put it on the table in front of him.
And he thanks them for keeping him alive when he was six and seven, because that critic kept him small and controllable. So he didn’t run out into the street. He didn’t swim out past his ability to stay afloat, but that at the age of 60 or whatever, we probably don’t need it anymore. And so he has his clients give the inner critic a great new job, which might be ethical consultant for the project so that the inner critic can go off to the library where there’s an incredibly comfortable chair and a good reading light and 2,000 books. And he will sit there and read, which he loves to do, and when we need an ethical consultation, we’ll come get him. But we don’t need that constant — is it okay to say the F word on this show?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. Yes please.
Anne Lamott: Okay. So in Bird by Bird, there’s a whole chapter on K-Fucked Radio, KFKD. And without a lot of help and a lot of transformation and healing, K-Fucked Radio’s on 24/7. It’s telling you how far short you’re falling. It’s telling you how great you started out and what a disappointment you’ve turned out to be. It’s telling you that what you’re in the middle of is beating a dead horse, on and on and on. And so the Shapes of Truth work and the inner critic work and Bird by Bird is 90 percent about turning down K-Fucked Radio. Anyway, out of the left-hand speaker is all this stuff about that you can’t do it perfectly, and why bother, and that this has been blah, blah, blah. But out of the right-hand speaker, is like the voice of the people who love you most. The voice of like, for me, Sam or my husband or my two best girlfriends. And they’re saying, “I love your stories. I love how you write. I can’t wait to read more.” But you can turn down the left-hand speaker and it’ll always be there to some degree.
Tim Ferriss: There are many different directions I could go. And thank you for that context. I am going to sit down and reread Bird by Bird, in fact, which I’ve read at least I would say a dozen times. But I’d always written non-fiction, and I’m beginning to experiment with fiction, which is a whole different sport, it would seem. Freeing in many ways.
Anne Lamott: I can help you with that.
Tim Ferriss: You can help me?
Anne Lamott: I can help you because if you want someone to help you, I’ll help you.
Tim Ferriss: I would love that.
Anne Lamott: Because it’s all this new stuff. You sit down, you keep your butt in the chair, you take one passage, one memory, one vision, one bit of dialogue, one character description, and you do it badly.
Tim Ferriss: So if we look back to your childhood — my understanding is you had a role model for this butt-in-chair time. Could you tell us a bit about your childhood?
Anne Lamott: Yeah, well, the model was my father who was a writer, Kenneth Lamott. And he had a lot of books published and a lot of magazine articles. And I heard him down at his desk at that old Olympia at 5:30, every morning, rain or shine or hangover, he just did it. And that was what he taught me was that you don’t wait for inspiration. It’s an illusion. And in fact, I gave a talk once on inspiration, on how I don’t believe in it, and how what gets me going is debt, mental illness, and desire for revenge. But my dad just did it. And that’s what I learned. And that’s what I passed on to my son. And my house was very, very tense. My parents didn’t love each other. My father drank a lot. My mother was very, very overweight and a black belt codependent from Liverpool. And I was the middle child. I have an older brother and a younger brother, and it was up to me to make sure Dad kept coming home because he didn’t like Mom, but he loved me.
I had a rebellious older brother and an infant baby brother, and I needed to try to help raise the baby brother. And I mean, my parents really would have been better off raising orchids or teacup poodles or something. And so what I did at the age of five was to try to raise the baby and to try to keep my brother from imploding. And it was exhausting. And I got migraines at five years old and it was the ’50s; no one quite noticed that children had mental health diagnoses and stress that was really life or death. But I’ll tell you, my family worked better when I had a migraine because families do well if there’s one sick person that’s not them. So when I had to be in the total darkness with cold compresses, the family thrived.
But I learned a couple of rules and I know you’ve written about stuff like this, but I learned some survival tools, and one was to think that I was defective, and that I was the reason that the family wasn’t doing well. Because if I was the problem, that meant I had some measure of control, right? I could do better. And I couldn’t do better. I was an A student, I was a tennis star. But I believed I could do better and I could need less. And if I did better and needed less then it seemed to make Mom and Dad better. And it was completely Reaganomics trickle-down. Like if Dad was okay and we helped Dad pump up, then Mom would be able to nurture the three of us. So I was a born-to-die people-pleaser. I got all of my self-esteem from outside, from good grades, from being the star of the classroom, and from being a great conversationalist that my parents liked to have around, and that my parents’ friends like to chat with.
And I was not only defective, and this is where it gets dicey, but I was in charge of everybody’s happiness. I was in charge of helping Mom not feel so put down by Dad. I was in charge of making Dad come home because I was so adorable and I rubbed his feet. I’m a lot older than you, but when I was coming up in the ’50s, the men, they all wore socks with garters, these little sock garters. And I was like a little geisha girl with curly kinky hair, and I’d sit and I’d take off his little garter on the couch. And I’d take off his sock and I’d rub his feet. And I thought he would come home for that. And he drank a lot. So what I got good at was pleasing people and being a stratospheric achiever, but not quite so bright that it ruined my older brother’s life and it made him feel like a loser. And I know how to raise babies. And I know how to get by on the leftovers, on whatever was left over after I gave everybody the very, very best parts of me.
So all of my books, including Bird by Bird and Operating Instructions, everything, has to do with that coming into radical self-care and becoming my own priority. This is kind of funny. My mom, who is a black belt, as I told you, codependent, always took the broken fried egg. My entire life. I can swear on a stack of Bibles, my mother never once said, “Here, somebody else take the goddamned broken egg yolk! Ken, you take the…” My mother ate the broken egg yolk, and that’s what I was raised to believe women did.
And I had to have enough therapy, enough recovery. I’ve been clean and sober 35 years now, and enough in the women’s movement, and a lot of outside help so that I could be my own priority. And if there was a broken egg yolk, maybe it wasn’t my turn again. Maybe Sam should have the broken egg yolk. Sam loves a perfect fried egg. You know what? Tough shit. I know that sounds like a loving, Christian thing to say, but it had to do with becoming my own priority. So that was the childhood I had. I was very afraid. I had migraines. I was too smart, I was very good at math; girls weren’t supposed to be. I skipped a grade. I made the boys feel bad because I was better at math than they were. I was small and I looked funny. I had this crazy, pure-white, blonde, kinky hair and these huge green eyes. I weighed about 20 pounds till eighth grade.
And, all I knew to do was to do better and to try to do it perfectly. And that’s why I think the chapter in Bird by Bird is something that people so relate to because like in my family, all of us — and the American way, in fact — but in my family, the theme was forward thrust. That no matter what was going on, you keep going, you keep going forward, you thrust forward so that the abyss doesn’t open up at your feet. And if the abyss threatens to you, you get to IKEA and you buy a cute throw rug. You trick out the abyss. And they call the abyss the abyss because it’s pretty abysmal. It’s a nightmare. So you try not to land in it. What my family did was drink and overeat and diet.
My dad had a million affairs, and it turned out — and you’ve written about this — that the abyss, or in the Christian theology of St. John the Divine, it’s the dark night of the soul is where transformation most often happens. And that if you can just bear being somewhere that you’ve never been before, where you don’t really have any kind of owner’s manual or a clue of how to proceed, then you’re really teachable. You know? And from that place, something magical might just grow.
Tim Ferriss: I want to ask you a few questions that are going to be interrelated. And so I’ll tell you what they are. And then we’ll come to the first one. So you asked me a question before we began recording, you asked me several questions. You asked me how I was doing. You also asked me if I was spiritually fit or feeling spiritually fit. I don’t remember the exact wording, but I’d like to hear, to you, what that means. And then after that, what it means to you current day. And after that, I’d love for you to tell us the story or any story of a dark night of the soul experience that you’ve had that helped to catalyze this radical self-care. But let’s start in the present tense: spiritually fit. What does that mean to you?
Anne Lamott: Well, spiritually fit means I’m in my body, paradoxically. It doesn’t mean I’m in some ether world of divine enlightenment. I heard a preacher years ago say the 23rd psalm, which is “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” But she said, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not trip.” And I just love that because when I’m spiritually not fit, I’m just tripping. I’m making up stories, I’m in fear, I’m in anxiety. I have a tremendous anxiety disorder for which I’m successfully treated most of the time, but I’m just tripping on something somebody said that it stuck in my craw, on something I’m afraid of, of something — a lot of fear. In recovery, there’s some great acronyms for fear because people like my cokehead friends. I mean, I’m my own cokehead friend, but they would say that the False Evidence Appearing Real, which usually means that you’re at the window, peering through the drapes, thinking that there’s a SWAT team on your lawn at four in the morning.
And that the only, the best idea you have, is another cool, refreshing beer. But some of the ones I love is — one is the Frantic Effort to Appear Recovered. That’s my main thing is that when I need to look good, when I need to appear to be doing well, is when I’m at my most spiritually lost. And another one I love is Future Events Already Ruined, and so I’m just tripping out. Like I was tripping out this morning about what if I screwed up with Tim? And you’re so illustrious and your listenership, I think, is younger and why would they want this old lady with dreadlocks, this Sunday school teacher, where do our Zen diagrams meet? And I was tripping and then I remembered, Future Event’s Already Ruined. That’s not true. That’s just K-Fucked Radio.
And another one I love is Fear Expressed Allows Relief. And so I told Neal, and he said, “You are so wonderful at this, just breathe and go for a walk first and do what you do. And you’ll be sitting there with Sam and Tim is great, and you’re going to love it. It’s going to go by so quickly.” But so Fear Expressed Allows Relief. So spiritually fit for me is that I’m not tripping. And that I’m breathing. When I was a child, I didn’t breathe. I held my breath for all the reasons I told you. And I remember I used to pass out on the boardwalk in town and at three years old, and my dad would nudge me and say, “Annie, Annie,” and I’d blink awake. But if you breathe, you may end up in your body and it may be that in your body, terrible things happen to you.
And if you’re a girl addict and alcoholic, like I am, until 1986, you let terrible things happen in your body. You encourage terrible things. If you let people do anything at all that they want, they seem to like you better, briefly. And so breathing will bring you into your body, so for that reason, you may resist it. But for me to do what I call the sacrament of ploppage and to sit down for one minute to breathe into my heart cave and do the sighing, I get my sense of humor back. And laughter, even at my own quirky, fearful, darling self, laughter, I’ve written in a number of places, is carbonated holiness. So if I’m breathing and I’ve gotten my sense of humor back, I’m in something spiritual, I am something that has to do with my human spirit and the divine.
I mean, I believe, and I’ve heard, that we have dual citizenship. We’re children of the divine or children, sons and daughters of God. And we also have these kind of screwed up biographical details. We’ve got genetic details that we would have maybe not preferred. We have predispositions to alcoholism and mental illness or to weight gain in our thighs or whatever. But I have to remember that I can toggle back between dual citizenship, between being a child of God or of the great universal spirit, and Annie Lamont, 67, Sunday school teacher and left-wing activist, mother and grandmother. And, I got married at 65. I got married three days after I got Medicare. And those are my true biographical details. And I also am a person of spirit. So that’s what spiritually fit means for me is that I remember that I’m not this terrible pinball machine in my mind, cranking out new ideas about how I can do life more perfectly so that everybody will think more highly of me.
Tim Ferriss: Annie, I want to tell you, I am enjoying this tremendously. So you are exceeding every expectation. So I’m very, very happy that you’re here, and thank you for making the time to be here.
You mentioned this radical self care and having written a lot about radical self-care and what a contrast that is to your early experiences, or earlier experiences in life. Was there, or is there a particular catalyzing event that brought radical self-care into focus as an imperative for you?
Anne Lamott: Well, two things spring to mind. I mean, I could write a whole book on the dark night of the soul, and every book I’ve written is about it to some degree, but it’s my favorite topic. And I just had a million dark nights of the soul while I was drinking and using. And usually the solution then was to have eight or nine social vodkas and maybe a little amyl nitrate just to socialize. But then in 1986, the 4th of July weekend, I had a three-day blackout, which is so unfair. I’m not kidding. Because usually you have a blackout and it’s like a wet chalkboard eraser has come by and there’s nothing left on the chalkboard of what you did that evening. And it’s very scary, but usually they don’t happen all that often. I had three in a row, July 4th, July 5th, and July 6th.
And I woke up in terror the morning of July 7th and I had run out of any more good ideas. All I could think of was how I could figure out a way to learn to drink more successfully. And I knew that that I wasn’t going to be able to break that code. And I was already a believer. I mean, I’ve pretty much been a believer my whole life. I already had a church by then. I was just done. I’d reached the end of my rope. That’s what the dark night is. You’ve run out of any more good ideas. And in that space of total emptiness and lostness, I was lost and something found me. And I have to think of it as grace. I understand grace to be spiritual WD-40 and that it spritzes you. Maybe a really quick spritz, or maybe you get the little thin red straw inserted into you and you get a sustained spritz of it.
But it was like water wings. I suddenly understood that I wasn’t going to sink completely, but that I needed a lot of help. And that was a hugest breakthrough for me. Well, the help I got first, I got a couple of sober women who said “I have what you have. And I found a way out, one day at a time, not drinking, just for the day. And, if your ass falls off, we can help pick it up and carry it to where we are and we’ll sit together and we’ll share our truth and you won’t have to drink for the rest of the day and we’ll help you get through the day just without a butt.” The amazing thing about grace is that it meets you exactly where you are and then it doesn’t leave you where it found you. It sort of tricks you into getting into its wheelbarrow.
And then it moves you to someplace where maybe there’s just a shaft of light or maybe there’s cool water. And the cool water I found was other sober people. But that was the darkest night I can remember. And then here’s a recent example. My son and his son live here in a barn on the property and his son lives with him half-time and with the child’s mother half time. And I was in major, major people-pleasing, and I was dancing — I was just dancing as fast as I could to make sure everybody’s needs were met. And I was taking the leftovers and the broken egg yolks, and I was exhausted. I was in existential exhaustion and it had been going on for a while. And I finally — oh, I know, I shared it with my older brother who’d stopped by, who’s a fundamentalist Christian.
And he’d sort of basically done the equivalent of handing me some nice, Christian bumper sticker about how God never gives you more than you can handle, which I think is a total crock. And I think what you got to do with God is to convince Him that you really can’t bear all that much. Like when you deal with a trainer at the gym, you don’t want them to know how much you can lift, because they’ll make you lift it. And then what you have to do is, instead, to just pretend you can’t and hint at liability from another gym you went to where they made you lift too much. When my brother handed me this stupid word bumper sticker, I lost it. And I said to him, like one of the Coneheads, I said, “I have to go right this minute now and go for a ride. I have an errand to do.” And my older brother looked at me like “What?” And I got in my car and I drove out to the woods and screaming and shouting and pounding the steering wheel and saying, “I hate you, Sam.” “I hate you,” to his mother. “I hate you, John,” who’s my older brother. “I hate you, Mom and Dad, you taught me that I’m a piece of shit unless I’m getting As and unless the entire world…” and I hated everybody and it was a half hour. I turned around, half hour. Same record.
And then finally I pulled over to the side of the road and I called my spiritual mentor, whose name was Horrible Bonnie — that’s what I call her anyway — and I said “I cannot stand it. All I do is be there for everybody else, and I get nothing.” And I went on and on and she listened, which is the miracle that somebody listens and they don’t try to save, or rescue, or fix you, or force you into submission to what they think would be a good path for you. And she said, “Annie, this is what we paid for. This is where I hoped you would get some day.” And I wasn’t in cute, adorable crying. I was in red-faced, swollen nose, Karl Malden, snotty crying. I said, “No, but I don’t have any — I’ve tried everything, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
She let me cry, and she said, “You are — everybody else is your priority, that your son, and your grandson and your mom, and your relatives, and your best friends and your people at church and blah, blah, blah, that everybody else is taken care of and you get leftovers.” And it was the darkest, snottiest, wettest, dark night of the soul. And it wasn’t like God reached down with his magic or his or her magic wand and tapped me. It really hurt. I was really angry about what I’ve put up with. And I was sad and angry and freaked out. And we just stayed on the phone. And then all of a sudden I could breathe again. And I drove back to my house and I became my own priority. And my older brother was there and he goes, “Hi, you seemed kind of…” I said, “Oh, no, I didn’t — you know, no, I’m fine.” And a frantic effort to appear recovered.
But from that point on, I can tell you what date that was, because three months later I met the man who became my husband. I did three months of this radical self-love of being my own priority, of letting everybody else take the leftovers, of putting myself first, of structuring my days around what would make me happiest, what I needed to do, and what I hoped to do ,and what I loved to do. And then I would find time for everybody else. And three months to the day later, I met Neal for our first coffee date. And that was five years ago. We haven’t been apart for a day since. So that was the most recent dark night of the soul. My son, who’s right here, had a very long stretch of meth and alcohol where I thought he would die. That was the most terrifying thing to think I could lose him, because he’s my outside heart.
You know, I think children are our outside heart, and I couldn’t save him, I couldn’t fix him, I couldn’t rescue him. I couldn’t really help him. But the dark night of our soul was that he had a two-year-old child. He had a baby at 19 and the mom and my grandchild were living with me and Sam was around, but he had a house in the Tenderloin. He had an apartment, and he showed up wasted. And I had reached my bottom. That’s what the dark night is. You’ve run out of any more good ideas. And so what I did was I took a sharpened pencil and I held it to his throat. I mean, this does not jibe with my spiritual books, my persona, and my being a Sunday school teacher.
And I said, “You’re as bad as any junkie I know. And you cannot be back on this property with your baby If you so much have a hit of marijuana.” And we just looked at each other and he looked at me like with such hatred. And for your child to hate you is about as bad as it ever gets. And then I got some sort of holy spirit nudge or something, the great universal spirit. And I said, “Do you want a ride back to the city and to the Tenderloin?” I don’t know if you know the Tenderloin is, but —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I do. I lived in San Francisco a long time, but a lot of people don’t, so could you describe it, please?
Anne Lamott: It’s not lovely. It’s where all the crackheads and heroin addicts — it’s a really deprived, depleted, addicted, prostitute, pimp, terrible, terrible place. And anyway, so I drove him back to his house and he got out of the car and he hated me. And I walked over to him and I reached for him. I took a chance. You know, they say courage is fear that has said its prayers. We hadn’t said a word in the car. It’s an hour drive. And I just kept praying in silence in the car. And we stood together and I reached for him and he reached for me. And I said, “I’ll see you,” and he said, “I’ll see you.” And then he called me three weeks later. And he said, “I’ve got a week clean and sober.”
And the guys who could actually be there for him, which was not his incredibly crazy mother who had had it, these guys in San Francisco who were clean and sober had fished him out of the trough, and one day at a time had helped him get clean and sober, and he hasn’t had a drink or a drug for 10 years now. So those three things that I’ve described are the darkest nights of the soul that I’ve been through. But the thing with Sam and with my child in general, is that I had thought up until then that I had some real — I have a disease of good ideas, usually for other people. And I believe that my ideas will really help them have better lives and at least make me less uncomfortable when I’m around them. And I learned that my help was not helpful to Sam and that help is the sunny side of control. And I was trying to control him and that was making him worse.
And I still, I’m 67. He’s going to be 32 this year. I still, he’s on his hero’s journey with his podcast How to Human that you’ve listened to, and he’s doing a beautiful job. And I would still like to get on his hero’s journey, just maybe 10 feet behind him with a juice box and sunscreen maybe, and just be there in case he needs me. But when I do that, it’s injuring him. It’s not helping him. It’s certainly not helping me. But what I have to do is it’s the awareness that I’m doing it again and grip myself gently by the wrist and say, “Annie, stop, get back onto your own emotional acre. He’s doing great. He is a miracle.” That’s what has come from the dark nights, are the greatest truths I know. That my help is not helpful, that when I’m in the darkest, most scared place on earth, if I can not try to do the forward thrust and try to redecorate the abyss, that I’m going to get blessing and light, and I’m going to get fresh air. My life is, if I can tough it out or let somebody into it with me and breathe, and do left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe, that my world is going to become more spacious.
Tim Ferriss: I want to underscore a few things and follow up on a few things. The first that I want to note is Sam’s podcast. As you mentioned, I recently listened to his episode on the How to Human podcast, and people can find many interviews online at Hellohumans.co. That’s .co hellohumans.co. And we’ll link to that in the show notes. His episode with Paul Williams, the famed singer/songwriter, was absolutely incredible. I was tremendously impressed. And I do not say that lightly. I do not say it often, because I think most podcasts become an elephant graveyard of two or three episodes. And the effort put in is very minimal, but it was very clear how well prepared Sam was, how well versed he was, and how emotionally connected he was to Paul when they were speaking.
It’s just a spectacular episode, so I do want to encourage people to check that out and go to Hellohumans.co. And I want to then return to your July 4 to 6 blackout. And what you mentioned, and I’m paraphrasing probably, was that grace found you. And my follow up question to that is: what did that feel like? How would you describe that experience?
Anne Lamott: Well, I can reference it by tying in the Paul Williams podcast, actually. When Paul talks about having won the Academy Award for the Barbra Streisand movie, where he’s standing before a hundred million people being given the greatest accolade that the entertainment world can bestow on someone, and he stood there in the light of that, and he said it bought him 24 hours.
Tim Ferriss: 24 Hours of elevated mood, of feeling good.
Anne Lamott: Of feeling like he wasn’t a piece of shit. He was drinking and using, and so when I got clean and sober, I had had three books published. I mean, I was doing really well in the world’s eyes. I live in the same county I was born in, I know everyone here. I am loved out of all sense of proportion. I’d had three books published. They’d done really well. And I knew secretly that I was a fraud and dying. I just felt like I was, like my soul was so besmirched by what I did with other people, what I’d done to women friends, how I’d dishonored my own self. And I got that it wasn’t out there, in a great feature article in a local paper, let alone on the Academy Awards stage. That it was an inside job, and that it was going to not be available to me if I kept chasing down the fame and the fortune and the attempt to be perfect at what I do.
And I learned pretty early on, like July 7th, I got sober. And I think I realized by the end of that first month, I was very frail and I weighed no pounds, which I love. I also had a massive eating disorder, which I miss because I was like 20 or 30 pounds less. But anyway, I realized that my life had been like greyhounds, dogs at the races trying to outrun each other. But that the dog who won actually had caught up to a battery with fake fur pasted to it. And that was what you win, or that it was like Glengarry Glen Ross, and if you got second prize, you got the steak knives. And I had that spiritual awakening, which was as important as it gets. That it’s not out there, that it doesn’t have to do with what you can buy, or achieve, or lease, or own, or date. And that it was going to have to do with some kind of union with your own truth and with your own self.
And it had to do with — through that union with a power greater than ourselves, and the great universal energy, and the bigger reality. The first week of being sober, I have to say, was not a high point in my life. I was extremely anxious and frantic. And it was my best friend. And everybody loved me when I drank. I’m a really funny, sweet person. And I sleep with everybody. So to give that up was kind of crazy. And I’d wake up really sick, and I’d think about having a beer just to get all the flies going in one direction. And people like me when I’ve had a couple of beers. And so I thought like, “Who will like me now? Who will like me if I’m not chasing the bunny at the Greyhound track? Who will like me if I’m visibly scared, and uptight, and sad?” And it turned out that these other women did. They said, “We’re going to love you till you can learn to love yourself.”
And in fact Sam, when he was eight or nine, we were watching King Kong, the Jessica Lange remake, and he always said this trippy stuff. But he watched it and he turned to me and he said, “She loves him because she can see that he’s lonely.” And I just wept when he said that, that Jessica Lange loved King Kong, because she could see that he was lonely. And that’s really what the people who helped me get sober — and also at my church. I go to this funny little failing church. It’s half black and half white, can hardly pay the electrical bills. And it was the same thing. I went there drunk and bulimic, and stoned, and they loved me because they could see that I was lonely. But I couldn’t take it in until I stopped self-medicating, like you refer to with over-caffeination.
And once I was there, and I was settled with somebody who was really safe and listening, then I could begin to have a more tender, gentle feeling towards my own anxious and disappointing self. So I could see that the anxiety was part of what was so beautiful about me. Like for instance, when I was coming up, I was very, very sensitive. I think that’s why I got migraines, but that was always, I was so shamed by the culture, by my teachers, and by my parents for being so sensitive. There was a book my parents read called The Overly Sensitive Child that helped parents not have to have their lives ruined because their child saw the cover of National Geographic, and that the children in India had flies, or were starving to death, had flies on their eyes.
And it was all about trying to help me not be the person that I was, which was very, very sensitive. And I was gravely shamed for it. And when I got sober, my friend Tom Weston told me these five rules of being human that changed my life. I’ll tell you them now, that had to do with who I was and why I was so shamed for being who I was born to be. The first rule is you must not have anything different or wrong with you. You just must not have anything different about you, or wrong. Second rule is that if you do, you really have to get over it as quickly as you can. You really have to fix that. It’s really a problem. The third rule is that if you can’t get over it or fix it, you should just pretend that you have, that it’s really not an issue anymore.
The fourth rule is that if you can’t even pretend to have corrected it, you should just not show up because it’s just so painful for the rest of us to have to see you in your current condition. And the fifth rule is that if you are going to insist on the right to show up, you should have the decency to be ashamed. I was toxic with shame from my earliest, earliest years to 32 when I got sober. And I covered it up by being so successful, and so charming, and just such a snappy piece of cheese.
And when I heard those words, which is somewhere around 86, I realized I was home free, that that was the work I was going to do, was that I was going to insist on the right to show up as is with my funny hair, with my funny thighs, with my hypersensitivity, with my big, open heart. And I was not going to be ashamed. And if it was a problem for you, then you were going to have to go. I wasn’t going to keep trying any harder to get you to see that I’m just totally fabulous and unique. If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for you. You know this, not everyone’s going to like you and like your work. Lots of people can’t stand my work, either the political people, because I’m a Christian, or the Christian people because I’m a left-wing activist. You know people, a lot of people, you must’ve gotten horrible put downs and criticism in the media.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, sure.
Anne Lamott: And you have to, you need to go, “Okay, look, thanks for sharing. And this is not a place where I’m going to spend a lot more time because I don’t know how long my life is going to be, but I don’t have time for this kind of crap,” right?
Tim Ferriss: Totally.
Anne Lamott: So that was how, I think that was an equation, let’s say, that helped me know what my work on this earth was going to be, was that I was going to stop trying to fix, and change, and correct myself so that the culture and society would think I was more of a success.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a backstory in Bird by Bird — you mentioned E.L. Doctorow, and that writing is like driving at night with the headlights on. We talked a little bit, not much, about shitty first drafts. And I’m actually going to ask you a modified question based on a question that Sam asked Paul, which was something along the lines of “If you look back at all the songs you’ve written, is there a line or lines that really encapsulate your life philosophy or philosophy?” Something like that. And Paul’s answer was “You give a little love and it all comes back to you,” meaning leaning into kind moments, and leaning in, in that way, having immediate and medicinal effects on yourself and others. I’m just wondering if, after writing so many books, if there are certain lines, or passages, or quotes that really stick out as either part of your life philosophy that is critical for you, or just part of your fabric of being. Are there any particular lines, concepts, or passages that, that hop out for you?
Anne Lamott: Oh, boy. It might be hard for me to think of anything on the spot, but a quote that I see quite frequently around Twitter, the Twittersphere, is that “Everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
Tim Ferriss: So please elaborate. I was going to ask you a question about that. How does that apply to you in your life?
Anne Lamott: Well, it’s so awful to see yourself tweaked and maybe failing, which we all do. It’s part of the human condition. You know, like Vonnegut said, “Welcome to the monkey house.” But we see ourselves feeling, crying, or tweaking, or twitching. You know, we’re getting a tic in our eye, and everything in us tells us to correct it. It’s rule three — no, rule two: you should correct it as quickly as possible. And instead, what I need to do then is to just stop. I mean, that’s what I tell my writing students, “Just stop. Just stop. Stop living unconsciously. Stop trying to force everything into submission, and stop.” And what I mean is unplug, turn off your phone for five minutes. You can do it, turn everything off. If you need to cry, cry. We’re so shamed into not crying growing up.
Because I had a mother from England, if we started to cry at the dinner table, we went to our room without eating. And for me, crying has been the way home. Crying and rage have been the way home. My parents never expressed rage, not once. And they hated each other. They were like a Harold Pinter play with this very clipped, erudite conversation. I’ve had to teach every woman I’ve ever helped get sober, let alone all my Sunday school kids, that to cry is going to bring them back into the fullness of their own selves. It’s going to bathe them, it’s going to baptize them, it’s going to hydrate them, it’s going to water the ground at their feet where God knows what funny seeds have been dropped by birds and will grow with just a little bit of water.
So, to unplug, for me, sometimes means crying. Usually for me to be on that forward thrust or the rat exercise wheel is because I am trying to stay one step ahead of the abyss. And I’m trying not to feel my feelings. I’m just trying to — it’s mood altering for me to be so busy and to be at such a high level of conversation and achievement, and if I can just stop and unplug, I might start to cry. I might start to realize how furious I am and how scared I am of being furious. When I was coming up in the ’50s, an angry woman was about to get exiled. Believe me, by about ’61, an angry woman was replaced by a cute young woman who wasn’t so angry. You know, about ’61, ’62 because of Hefner, the men started leaving. And they left the angry ones, and they left the weepy ones, and they left the ones who didn’t keep their weight down.
So there were a lot of societal constrictions on having emotions and states of mind that were not pleasant for the men to be around. And for me, it’s this kind of frantic need to do even more and to do it even better. And you break down. I think all three of us, you, me and Sam, have had periods that we would refer to as breakdowns, where we just ground to a halt and ran out of any more good ideas and didn’t even care. You know, we’re just kind of done. And from those places for me, and I know for Sam, and I assume for you, Tim, that from that, and maybe not later that day, or Thursday right after lunch, there was new life. There was transformative renewal of some sort.
And so to unplug means that you stop and your shoulders sag, and you sigh, and your head drops to your shoulders. And to anyone else, to anyone in the world, it would look like you’re doing really badly. But what you are is like an electrical car outside the health food store plugging back in. And everything, like everything literally works again if you unplug it. That’s the greatest truth I know. Now, one thing I’m famous for something I didn’t actually say, which is —
Tim Ferriss: It’s like Mark Twain on the internet or Abe Lincoln.
Anne Lamott: Yeah, exactly. But Tom Weston again, my Jesuit friend, said years ago, maybe 30 — it was 30 years ago because Sam was two, and we were with Tom in Mexico. And he said, “You can tell you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do.” And I said it in one book and attributed it. And then a couple of times I didn’t attribute it, I have to say, embarrassingly enough. But most people attribute it to me, and I’ve spent about 10 years saying “It’s not me, it’s not me.” Now I don’t care anymore and Tom doesn’t care, but that’s a great line that I would like to be known for.
Tim Ferriss: You said something in passing a while back that I want to come back to. And that was related to your anxiety disorder. And you said most of the time it’s treated well. What has been helpful for your anxiety disorder or anxiety overall for you?
Anne Lamott: Medicine. I have a severe biochemical imbalance. I had it as a child. I had OCD. I had to turn light switches off on and off 17 times before I could get into my bed. If there was any sound in the house between the switching light switches and the bed, I had to go back and do it over. There was a system. My whole issue has been safety and whether I was safe or not, and I basically never was. But I was also addicted to unsafe people because it was about maybe getting it to come out right this time. So when I was coming up, there was no awareness that children could have really terrible biochemical disorders, where they would have to spend a tremendous amount of energy just getting to where a regular kid without an imbalance would start off.
Like you and Sam have both talked about having severe depression at times in the past, and that’s not something you’re going to think your way out of. You weren’t supposed to. And it’s not something you’re going to go to EST for. It’s going to be something that is going to be holistic, whole body, spiritual, psychic, physical, and for me, medical. And so I found a great therapist so many years ago, and he found a way to help me get more in balance so that I don’t — without the medicine I’m on, I have plenty of anxiety. Everything I write about is how anxious I am. And then when you and I leave, I’m going to be really anxious and think, “Well, this didn’t go well, or “My answers were too long,” or “He probably won’t even run it.” So I have plenty of anxiety, but I don’t have constant thoughts that Neal or Sam or Jax will die, which I have without treatment.
As a part of my holistic healing from this anxiety disorder, I mean, I still have OCD. I’m going to have it, but I don’t do the light switch anymore, so that’s progress. Not perfection, but it’s holistic. I eat a certain way. I have prayer and meditation as very important parts of my life. With my writing book, you will remember this, I really believe that discipline is the path to freedom. So that with writing students, I never just say, “Oh, just wait for inspiration. Wait until you feel like writing.” I don’t say that. And with myself, I don’t say, “Wait till you feel like meditating.” I don’t think, “Well, wait till prayer comes naturally.” I pray, help me or thank you. You know, help me, I’m so crazy right now. I’m so afraid. Or I hate myself so much right now.
I do my meditation as an act of freedom. And I tell the truth. You know, you and I were laughing about how much we love Elizabeth Lesser. And she had written a book about a miracle of telling people the truth. And it ended up being a book that’s published. Marrow, it’s called. She’s the head of Omega. That was about her sister’s blood marrow transplant that she was able to be the donor for. But I said, it’s such a great topic, blurting it out as a path to healing. And every day I can say that I either tell Neal, Sam, or my best girlfriend something kind of awful, kind of unseemly, that probably a person who is supposed to have this spiritual wisdom or some spiritual tools at any rate, you’d be surprised that she still goes there.
But I tell them. You know what they say? They say, “Oh, thank you for telling me that.” I was there Tuesday, and I told you, and you and I ended up laughing, and laughter is carbonated holiness. And then we got a bag of M&Ms and we drove around town listening to the Beatles and eating M&Ms. And we both got so happy. So that realm of telling it out, saying it, telling one person, for me, is how I let go of whatever’s vexing me. You know, people always say very sweetly, “Let go and let God,” and I just want to stab them in the head with a plastic fork like they’re a baked potato, because obviously if I could let go, I would have.
And you hear in recovery that everything we let go of has claw marks in it. But the ways that I can let go to you or to a group of people or whatever, and when I tell it, I get my sense of humor back. And I also might get people that tear up cause I’ve trusted them with my truth. And they nod and they say, “Me too.” And then I get to hook into something so much bigger than my own troubled, judgmental mind.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going to jump on the M&Ms. We’re going to come back to the claw marks and truth and prayer, but we’re going to begin with M&Ms. In the process of doing homework for this, I looked at a number of interviews, and in one, feel free to correct this, but I read a bit about your writing process. And here in front of me, I have it. It’s from Inlander. I think that’s correct. It said Inlander.com. “I sit down quite early, give myself short assignments,” dot, dot, dot, so I think it’s truncated as a quote, “and reward myself when I’ve finished a tough paragraph or passage — MSNBC and some M&Ms. No music or noise.” And I wanted to start with the last part. Do you still follow that rule, no music, no noise? You write in silence?
Anne Lamott: Yeah, I do. I’m so easily distracted. And this is what my dad did, and he wrote in silence. He was at the desk at 5:30 every morning in his little study, going tap, tap, tap on his old typewriter in silence. And he loved music, and as soon as he got up, he’d put on Coltrane or Mozart loudly, and got us all up for breakfast. But I write in silence.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the other rules that you have for yourself? When do you tend to — since, as you’ve mentioned, I think you’re a fan of discipline and systems when it comes to these things. Could you elaborate on what early means for you? And could you give some examples of short assignments?
Anne Lamott: Yeah. Early means, for me, 9:00. There’s a lot of us living on this property. My grandson goes to school, goes to camp. He comes over to my house for breakfast. There’s a lot of animals. There’s a husband. And so I kind of do everything that might distract me. I try to be at the desk at 9:00. There’s a chapter, I don’t know if you would remember it, from Bird by Bird, on one-inch picture frames. And I always had my students get each other one-inch picture frames, and I have one on my desk. I could show you if we were in my office and not Sam’s.
So you look through the one-inch picture frame and you see one scene. You see one thing that happened. You see the first time you got in the ice water of Maine, the ice water lake in Maine, when you were six years old, where the parents didn’t dare to go in, and you and the kids wouldn’t get out, and in fact were blue when you were finally fished out, and your teeth were like those wind-up dentures. And you just write, “That’s all I’m going to write.”
Well, the critical mind that Neal writes about is going to say, “What’s the point of that? What does that have to do with anything? Where are you going to use that?” And you have to let the critical guy be the ethical consultant. Let him go back to the library and read a book and wait patiently. And you write this one scene that has to do with this one small piece of lake where you’re with a relative and your mom and your dad and your brothers, and a bunch of blue cousins, all bright blue, shivering, teeth chattering cousins, and how that was like one of your first experiences of Heaven. But the mind is constantly going to tell you there’s not really a very effective or efficient reason for you to write this.
That’s what my writing students are up against constantly. That’s why I think I could help you with your novel if you really want to give it a try. Because in the beginning, what you’ll do is you’ll look through the one-inch picture frame, and all you’ll do is start scribbling down these scenes on a legal pad of moments and memories and visions and experiences, camp when you were nine years old, and that one moment in college where your life changed forever. In fact, let me ask you, Tim, was there a moment in college when your life changed forever?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, for sure. There were many, but the one that actually comes to mind is pretty dark, if you’re okay with dark.
Anne Lamott: Oh, dark is us. Dark are us.
Tim Ferriss: It will require a little bit of preface, but I had taken a year away from school to work at several jobs and also to buy time to finish my senior thesis. And I’d come to believe, for a host of reasons that I’ve written about, if people are interested they can find it if they just search my name and suicide, some practical thoughts, but I had really landed my place in a very dark abyss of hopelessness, and had not just thought about suicide, but actually by that point decided, I had planned it, I had put it on the calendar, and was, I would say a week, 10 days away from implementing the plan. It was pretty well thought through, quite creative.
And I had requested a book from Firestone Library at Princeton where I was — well, not then, but had just been an undergrad, about euthanasia or suicide, something like that. But I had forgotten to update my mailing address with the registrar, and as a result, I mean, thank God for this, but when they mailed out a physical postcard — so in today’s digital age, I wouldn’t be here. When they mailed out a physical postcard to say, “Your book has arrived for pickup,” it went to my parents’ house.
And my mom got this index card, this postcard, and called me to ask me about it with this quavering voice. And that snapped me out of this spell that I had put myself under, and that was the wake-up call that snapped me out of it. And certainly things changed at that point. Very quickly could have turned out differently. But that’s the one that comes to mind.
Anne Lamott: Well, that’s an amazing memory. And that’s a memory that almost anyone who read it would have an experience where the details were completely different, but where they grokked it. They got how you felt. Sam at Hello Humans wrote a piece about a terrible, terrible breakup years ago, maybe six years ago, where he ended up at the bridge. And he wasn’t climbing over the side, but he was in the parking lot. That’s pretty close for a mom. And when he wrote it, hundreds of people said, “Thank you. I have felt like that. I have been there.” I don’t live in San Francisco, so I wasn’t at the Golden Gate, but I was wherever they were.
So if I were your writing partner, I would say, “Will you tell me that story on paper and write it really badly? It’s going to be six pages. And by the time I edit it, I’m going to let you use three of them, but write it long and badly. Just write it, just do it now. You can do it in an hour. Okay?” That’s what I would do. So that’s how I talk to myself when I’m working. These memories are just so deep in our souls. They’re not obviously for entertainment value, they’re the stuff of the soulscape and the cycles that we pass through, and so beautiful. So that’s what I do. That’s what the one-inch picture frame and the short assignments, how they work. I do a new thing. You’ll like this. I decided an hour at a time is too long, but I can do 45. I do these things now I call pods, and they’re 45 minutes long.
And they’re based on the one-inch picture frame. So if you write for 45 minutes, you can get 30 minutes of work done. That’s just what the logarithm is, that for 15 of those minutes you’re kind of twisting and turning, trying to figure out a way out of having to write it all, and how anybody in their right mind would see that you shouldn’t have to write for 45 minutes. Well, nobody cares if you or I write again, so we’d better. But then I use the bribes and the threats and the M&Ms and the MSNBC at the end of every pod to get 45 minutes — an hour to get 45 minutes written. That’s what it is. That’s the equation. So an hour-long pod gets you 45 minutes. Two hours gets you an hour and 15 minutes. It’s just realistic.
It’s not efficient. It’s not what your teachers taught you. It’s the spiritual, creative, artistic life. It’s loopy, and it doubles back, and it’s like a Möbius strip, and it’s three steps forward and two back. But you’ve got to sit there, because you’ve got to keep your butt in the chair, and because no one in your family is going to be glad to hear you’re writing a memoir or an autobiographical novel. Anyway, I know a quote that, back to a question about a half hour ago, but this also has to do with our writing and these writing down your memories, writing the truth. I said, “You own everything that’s happened to you. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
So in other words, you can write it all down, any abuse, any neglect, that caffeinated neglect that was so common, all of it, everything you saw, and we can take it out later, or you can make it be happening to another family. That’s why fiction’s so great, but it all belongs to you. You own it. You get to write it, and we’ll figure it all out later. That’s what I always told my students. “Look, we’ll figure it all out later,” because they don’t want to hurt their families. I had a student whose mother used to hold his hand over the flame when he had disobeyed her on the stove. But he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She was an elderly woman by then.
And I said, “Make it be the family across the street that you were best friends with. Have their mother be the one, but you own it. She should not have done that to you, and you own it, and you get to work with it. You get to use it. See, the voice, that critical voice, every step of the way is going to be explaining reasons why it doesn’t matter if you write it, that you’re beating a dead horse, or that you’re going to hurt people’s feelings, or any number of reasons why, to keep you from writing. But if you have this thing inside of you, if you’re not writing, then you’re not whole. You have to ask yourself, “How alive am I willing to be?” And if you’re willing to be really alive, then you’ve got to write your truth. You’ve got to tell your stories. You’ve got to do this deep union with self, or you have to ask yourself, “Why am I even here? What’s the point?”
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask you a question about the blue cousins in Maine. And I’ll make it personal. So I’ve written two fiction short stories, which is not many, but two in the last few weeks. And the first was really easy for me to complete, which I was surprised by, but it was almost entirely based on real events. So the first 75 percent was basically taking the true events and sort of putting them in a different wardrobe, but it came out very easily. And then I had to fuss with it and have a few cups of coffee to figure out the rest. But in the process of a few hours, I was able to write a two-page short story, very short. And then I decided, well, let me try something that’s really more from the imaginary realm.
And this proved to be, I think, going to the deep end of the pool without my floaties on my arms maybe a little too early. And I got into this story that I’ve been working on, and I’m five, six pages in, and I’m just like, where is this going? I have no fucking idea how to wrap this up. What’s the point of it? It’s all these voices.
And my specific question is, if I don’t know where it’s going, and I have no idea what to do, and therefore I’m even more prone to putting off the writing for polishing my tennis shoes or fixing the door knob, or whatever excuse I can come up with, would you personally, for you or your students, just start writing anything at all to get the hands moving, even if it’s not related to the story? In other words, if you’re halfway through some larger project, but you really don’t know what to do, will you just write on something that’s completely unrelated?
Anne Lamott: Well, I believe that the people and the material know who they are and what they do, and that they need to trust that you’re a reliable narrator. And this brings me to a whole thing that I could do an hour on, which is that if you grew up around alcoholics or the mentally ill, the first thing you agree to is to not to see what’s going on, because it makes them so unhappy if you notice. So for your whole life, you just agree not to see what’s going on, and so you lose the ability to trust yourself as the narrator of your own story.
And so the material and the characters will give you themselves and their actions as they trust you to get it right. And so for me, that’s why I really believe in the quiet and the silence. And I taught the five-year-olds in this writing workshop, “Close your eyes. There’s a screen on the back of your eyes. Can you see the people? What can you tell me about them?” So you can get very quiet and close your eyes and go inward, and then you can ask the people, you can ask the characters, “What were you thinking then? What did you feel your choices were? Why were you not willing to just say what was true, and that you had the answer they were looking for? You had the missing purse, or you had whatever?”
You can ask them, “Tell me something about you, and what do you think, in this circumstance, would be plaguing you?” Here’s the thing. With this story, you might want to ask yourself, “What’s at stake?” You’re trying to get to know these characters better. Tim, I’m promising you this. You can write a 20-page short story. You can take out eight pages, and then you can send me the 12, and I’ll edit it for you. But the thing is that something has to be at stake. So you ask yourself and your characters, what do they love most in the world? What are they at risk of losing?
If they’re not at risk, there’s no story there. It could be a child. It could be their sobriety. It could be their life. But what do they stand to lose? So ask them, and you can look at them. Maybe there’s two or three main characters, and you ask them, “What couldn’t you lose?” And then you put some pressure on that where that could be at risk, and then you can see how they in fact respond. Do they run? Do they put their fingers in their ears and go, “La la la la la?” Do they drink?
Only you know and these people inside of you know, and you can ask them. But the main question is, there has to be something at stake in every story that any of us are going to — you’re the ancient tribal storyteller, and you’ve said, “Do you all have a minute? I’ve got a story to tell you.” And we sit around you at the fire on the stones, and you tell us the story. Now, we all love stories about ourselves, right? That’s what the tribal storyteller tells. And that’s what people like about my stories, because they’re the stuff in me that I know is universal and holds up a mirror to them. If nothing happens in your story, if nothing happens to their favorite character, what’s the story? It’s not a story.
And then what you as the writer do is mess with them. They couldn’t survive if they lost their partner, if the partner left them. That’s the single most driving force in their life. They couldn’t function if they lost their sobriety. That’s what causes them to panic. They couldn’t stand it if something happened to one of their kids. Lean on them, and then you can keep just closing your eyes and studying them. If you have two characters who hate each other, put them in an elevator that breaks down, and see how they react. But figure out what they can’t stand to lose, and then you’ve got us on the scene, “Oh, please don’t let that happen. No, don’t make that — oh, it’s going to happen!”
Tim Ferriss: What was it like having a documentary made about you?
Anne Lamott: Oh, it was so weird. It was just so weird. I’m kind of not even comfortable talking about it because I don’t like having pictures taken of me, let alone movies taken of me. But for about six months, Freida Mock, who’d made the Academy Award-winning documentary about Maya Lin and the Vietnam Memorial wall in DC, she and her family and a crew followed me from place to place and filmed me in interviews and performances I did on stage and stuff, and talking a lot about being a single mother because Operating Instructions was relatively new. And the one part of it I love — I love the stuff of my kid in it, because it’s such beautifully filmed home video.
But the stuff with my mom just breaks my heart. It’s so lovely. My mom, I’ve written a lot about her, and she was a handful. I had to be her mother from about four years old. And she got Alzheimer’s and that did not improve the situation. And Freida did a bunch of footage at the place that my mom lived, which was assisted-living — independent and then assisted-living. And my mom, she was very befuddled and overweight, and kind of an embarrassment if you were her kid growing up. It was just so touching. It breaks my heart. I love it so much that that is on film. But mostly, I don’t know. You must hate seeing yourself on film. I mean, I think anybody in their right mind does.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I have all sorts of insecurities when it comes to audio and video. Took me a while just to be able to listen to recordings of interviews with my voice in them. I learned recently, just as a side note, why we don’t hear ourselves the way we think we sound. And it’s because when we speak, when we’re the origin of our own voice, we’re also getting the vibration of the skull and the bones of the jaw, and so on, in our ear, the different components of that. There’s a resonance of that vibration that combines with the sound that then reflects off of the walls, and so on. So it is in fact a different voice, the voice that we hear and the voice that others hear. But quite apart from that, I’m wondering why you agreed to do the documentary.
Anne Lamott: I don’t know. I have to say before I answer, though, I was on Rosie O’Donnell’s show 20 years ago, and Sam was watching the replay when I got home from filming, and he listened, and then he said, very nicely, “Mom, do you have a speech impediment?” And I’ve never gotten over that, and I just believe I have a very severe speech impediment. Wait, what was the question again?
Tim Ferriss: The question was —
Anne Lamott: Why did I agree to do it?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, why did you agree to do the documentary?
Anne Lamott: I don’t know. I think it was partly that I was a bit of a starfucker, and that Freida Mock had gotten an Academy Award, and that I could win the Academy Award. And I would at least be up on stage when she won the Academy Award. And then I was always broke, too, and I thought that it would help me start to make more money, which it actually did. But it was all that kind of stars in my eyes thing. That was the only reason.
And then she got really down and dirty. And I cried a couple times on film when she asked about raising Sam without a father and what the men who helped raise him meant to us, how incredible the bond was between me and Sam and the men who stepped in to father him. He didn’t meet his dad until he was seven. And so there was some — and that’s what I live for, is for the depths to be revealed.
And I’m so sick of the surface stuff and the performance art shit that we parlay most of the time, or what Duncan Trussell calls — he says, “When you first meet me, you meet my bodyguard.” And what I live for are those moments on film or in books when the depth of our being is revealed. Like when Sam and Paul Williams do that interview on Hello Humans, they both weep, because they go into the truth of their hearts and souls and their being and their pain and their realness.
They do real, and there’s nothing more beautiful or touching. The ancient Greeks called God or thought of God as the really real, which is certainly not something that modern day religion is very interested in. But boy, that really real, you know when you’re in the presence of it, and it is a battery pack, and it is — oh, it’s so revitalizing. It’s thrilling. It’s thrilling to be with the really real, whether it brings tears to your eyes or it makes you stop for a minute and then throw back your head and laugh.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about prayer, if you’re open to that, because it’s not something that gets talked about much on this podcast. And specifically, I’m looking at a number of quotes from your new book, Dusk, Night, Dawn. These were sent to me by our mutual friend, Elizabeth Lesser. She had some selects that she sent to me. And one of them is very simple. It’s just one line. The greatest prayer, “helped me not be such an asshole.”
I’m using this as a segue into how you pray, when you pray, what it means to you, this word prayer. But perhaps we could start with this example, “It helped me not be such an asshole.” Speaking to you now, and hearing of your history of people-pleasing and accepting the leftovers, it’s hard for me to imagine you being an asshole. I imagine that you’re a pleasant drunk. You are catering or have catered to other people’s needs. So what does that prayer mean to you?
Anne Lamott: It was really my dad’s battle cry. He was an atheist. Both my parents were atheists, but he had this ethical, moral core. Both my parents did. They were very big in civil rights movements. And his thing was just, “Don’t be an asshole. Be kind.” And they had no spiritual interests at all. In fact, they kind of had a list of who were the craziest religious people of all in order, and which Christians were crazier than you actually had to be. But their path was about kindness and about service to others. And they did feed the poor, and they did take clothes to the cold. They took warm clothes to people that were cold on the street, and they did give away what they could.
But when I’m an asshole, it’s usually not that flagrant, because I have my appearance together. I’ve got the surface nicely burnished. And what I do, you can ask Sam or Neal, I get very quiet, and then I weaponize that quietness and it’s very scary. People find it very scary, I hear. But I stop caring, and I get very judgmental. And most of the time, I mean, a lot of the time, I’m just in judgment, because it’s so much more interesting than being peaceful and moseying along and being Ferdinand the Bull.
It’s so fun to be in judgment, especially with a friend, and to be doing gossip and judgment. And I think that that’s fine, and that we get to be really human and whatnot. But I heard when I first got sober, “The willingness comes from the pain,” and the healing comes from the tools of recovery and of our spiritual lives, meditation, prayer, walks, naps. But “The willingness comes from the pain” has really stuck with me.
And when I have made myself toxic, because I’m acting — I’m feeling like an asshole. I’m in judgment, I’m done with somebody, I’m sick of them, and I feel very cold and uncaring towards them, or I feel uncaring to a whole swath of humanity, or I feel, like Tom said, “You can tell you’ve created God in your own image when you hate all the same people he does.” When I’m in those states, I create a lot of pain for myself. It becomes kind of metallic, like sheet metal inside of me. You know when your heart gets cold and hard, it’s just so miserable. And again, back to awareness, as soon as you have the awareness that you’re there, then you can start to use the tools that you have.
And for me, it would be prayer and telling somebody, “I’m really stuck right now. I’m in the hostilities, and I’m in the Troubles,” like in Ireland. “I’m in the Troubles. I think I’m right. I’d rather be right than happy.” The Buddhists are always, “Would you rather be right or happy?” I’d rather be right, okay? Or the great Krishnamurti said, when he was asked where he found spiritual peace and what his message was, he said, “I don’t mind what happens.” And I mind about half of everything that happens. I mind that he said that he doesn’t mind what happens.
And when I’m there, I need help. And the help comes from being in the awareness that I’m in a cold, sheet metally place in my heart, and I either need the breath of the Holy Spirit, or I need my best friend to drive around with me, and we go get an overpriced cup of chai somewhere, and maybe some carrot cake while we’re there, and I need help. And I deserve it, and I can ask for it. And people love, love, love to be there for you. And for me, it’s so easy to save and fix and to be the help, because I was like a flight attendant in my family, as I’ve expressed. But it’s hard for me to ask for it. The great poet William Blake said, “We’re here to learn to endure the beams of love.”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s beautiful.
Anne Lamott: And I just think that’s terrifying, and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard, and it’s terrifying. “We’re here to learn to endure the beams of love.” I know you go through this with your girlfriend, that it’s scary to be loved.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Anne Lamott: It’s scary to be forgiven. It’s scary. You know what? It’s scary to be accepted as you are. It’s just like, what’s the catch? I’m sure your family was just fine, but in my family that never came up, that unconditional love and acceptance of who I was at any given time. It was usually about changing me to be who they really hoped I’d turn out to grow up to be. And so it’s so trippy just that one line, and to practice bearing it, to practice bearing it.
Tim Ferriss: Your metaphor of the flight attendant brings me to this anecdote I’d read of yours. When you first hit The New York Times list and you called your mom and said, “Oh, my God, mom, I hit the list.” And she replied with, “Oh, huh. Anything else?” Which sounds brutal, and it certainly can be extrapolated to influence so many things. What you just said about the sheet metal, this coldness is actually a feeling and a response I’m very, very familiar with. And it reminds me, I wish I knew the attribution. Somebody can find it. But I have a quote which really stuck with me, which was that, “Hate is not the opposite of love. The opposite of love is indifference.”
Anne Lamott: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: And I’ve thought about that a lot, because I suppose for many different reasons and childhood experiences and so on, from a very young age, I became very adept at instinctively dissociating. And it’s really been a project to work on that. Because it is second nature. When you pray, do you have sort of, in case of emergency break glass ad hoc use of prayer, do you — in addition to sort of on an as needed basis, do you have a routine of prayer at different times of the day or week or anything like that?
Anne Lamott: I wake up and I pray. I say a prayer every single — I wake up and I pray a prayer from recovery about, “Just help me keep my sticky fingers off the controls of this spaceship.” You know. “Help me move in love.” And I know as sure as I’m sitting here that if I want to have really loving, warm feelings, I need to do really loving, warm things. And I can do them for myself. I can put lotion on the parts of my body that I don’t love quite as much, let’s say. And I wish I’d remembered to go to the gym after I had a baby, but I didn’t. 32 years ago. I can do loving things with me, acts. Take the action and the insight follows.
You don’t think yourself into having a warm, generous heart. You act your way. You do loving things for other people. And so I pray to have that awareness. I pray to be paying attention to life all around me. To the golden crown sparrows that migrate through my part of the woods in the fall and to the daffodils that are only here for two months, with their crazy orange and yellow clown frills. And to the little bit of green shoots that somehow, I don’t know how, break through the concrete. And to pay attention. And as a writer, Henry James said “A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.” So I pay attention and I get material. I scribble it down and I gather like rags for the rag bag guy in my soul. Which is what you’re doing with your writing right now.
You’re amassing these squares to use for a quilt that you’re going to crochet together. And some of them are unbleached linen, and some are silk or velour, or an old piece of denim and you don’t judge them. You amass them. So I pray to pay attention to life as it kind of troops all around me. And I’ll tell you one thing. There was a guy who helped AA get started, who was not himself an alcoholic. He was a priest since 1935. And he said to Bill Wilson, who was one of the craziest people in America at that time, he said, “Sometimes I think that Heaven is just a new pair of glasses.”
And I think about that almost every day, because I can either have the glasses on that are like x-ray glasses, where I can just see everything that’s wrong with almost everything, really. Because I’m good at that. I’ve made a career of it. Or I can put on the glasses where I feel a lot of compassion for everybody. And I see how hard they’re trying. And I see that they got dealt a really shitty hand of cards and that they played it the very best they could. And I see with the better pair of glasses how much beauty is all around me. It blows me away. And it makes me free and it makes my life much more expansive. But I need to remember it, and the way I remember is to pray to have the good pair of glasses on.
Tim Ferriss: I love that. I would like to revisit the incredibly named Horrible Bonnie. How did Horrible Bonnie come into your life? And can you please paint a picture for us. Who is Horrible Bonnie? What are any lessons learned or benefits imparted from time with Horrible Bonnie and why on earth is her name Horrible Bonnie? So many questions, but please just tell us the story of Horrible Bonnie.
Anne Lamott: Well, her real name is Bonnie Allen. And she has been my spiritual mentor since I got into recovery. And she has been with me every step of the way. Through early sobriety, through having a baby without a partner or a cent in the world, through Sam’s mess and through a baby, Sam’s baby, at 19. Through breakups, through custody battles, through poverty. And every step of the way, she just sees so much blessing. And it drives me crazy. And no matter what shape I call her in, which is to say in completely enraged, spoiled brat, narcissist mode, she says, “Oh, dearest, I’m so glad you called and that you trust me with this.” That’s why I call her Horrible Bonnie, because it just drives me crazy. She would never get on the bus with me where we just trash. She wouldn’t trash Trump with me. And she loathed them.
But what she’d see was that incredible miracles and blessings were going to spring from the four years of having Trump. And that she would have me put on the good pair of glasses and see what was springing from this. That was going to change the world forever. What was going to change me forever. What she helped me do was to find my own inner Donald Trump, who’s bombastic and self-righteous and victimized. And it changed things for me. It really changed Trump for me when I found my own inner Donald Trump. And it’s that sort of thing. You see what I mean? That you could call her in rage and judgment, and she’d just wreck it for you. You call her in superiority, she’ll just wreck it for you. But I wanted to add one thing, if you don’t mind.
Tim Ferriss: Please.
Anne Lamott: When you were talking about the disassociation, because that’s been very, very important for me. And the inner Donald Trump is a part of that. That Horrible Bonnie helped me start welcoming these people that I trust, these parts of myself that I cannot believe are part of me, that I can’t stand, that I recoil from. And she had me start welcoming them to the table. To where we’re going to have soup tonight. And it would be like Blanche DuBois. My inner Blanche DuBois would be somebody who is a predator and who preys on people because she has zero self-esteem, zero sense of self. And she uses her feminine wiles and her victim to lure people in and to do for her what she can’t do for herself and to elevate her sense of self.
And Donald Trump, this person, this me, who really is such an asshole, and to say, “You know what? You’re a part of me. Come, we’re going to have soup. We’re going to have potato leek soup tonight. Come have a bowl with us.” And to make friends with it. And this is terrible. It’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever said on the air. But about four months ago — no, it was more than that. But there was a fire in a place, in a town where I hate somebody. I hate an entire family. Okay. I can’t believe I’m saying this. But I kind of thought, “Good.” I thought, “Good.” And I caught myself and actually laughed out loud. And I thought, “Oh, my God.”
And then I realized it was my inner maternal grandmother, whose name was Jane. She was my mother’s grandmother. And they grew up on the docks of Liverpool. They were poor. The husband was a dock worker. He died when my mom and her twin sister were six. And her mother, who was named Jane, was this cold, gimlet-eyed person who just hated people and who wanted bad things to happen to people. It was my inner Jane. And you know what? I said to Jane, “We’re having minestrone tonight. Come eat with us.”
So I had Blanche DuBois, Donald Trump, Jane. And what else? I have these incredible — like my hero. I found my inner Amelia Earhart. And I found that for married couples, it was kind of threatening that I’ve gone so many places, I’ve gone so far in my career. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve done things that might’ve been hard if you were married. And that I was so brave to do that they might not have felt brave enough to do. And so I found Amelia Earhart. And I would kind of tamp it down so it didn’t make other people feel bad about their own accomplishments. And I thought, “No, I don’t know how long I’m going to live, but I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have this pioneering, crazily brave woman inside of me.” And so I would say to Amelia Earhart, “We’re having Portuguese wedding soup tonight, come eat with us.” And so you’ve got all these parts of me that I have cut off that I welcomed back on my path to wholeness.
In the new book, a lot of it is about soul. And maybe all of these people are a part of what I would dare to call soul. That my Sunday school kids saw as the innermost Russian nesting doll. One of my Sunday school kids said he thought it was a silvery snow globe in the very center of me. Or like a kiosk from which the world troops by and I say hi to people and wave. And so, maybe in the very center of me, there’s not the person my parents wanted me to be or who I pretend to be or who everybody thinks I am. But it’s just kind of hodgepodgy thing that’s too big for one set of clothes. And it’s all the beauty and all the quirk and all of the damage and all of the everything. And it was exactly as it was meant to be.
And it’s like, I can push back my sleeves and live from there now. Live from my heart. Live from the heart cave. Live from the table where all the people have joined me for dinner for soup.
Tim Ferriss: It sounds like whether it’s with the assistance of Horrible Bonnie or on your own, that many of these reframes are the practice of sort of manifesting Heaven. As you quoted earlier, of putting on a different pair of glasses. And I’m really glad that you paused to talk about the reintegrating of these parts of yourself. And I have personally found, I would say, related work with someone named Dick Schwartz, Richard Schwartz, the founder of something called IFS, Internal Family Systems, which is somewhat strangely named, but is very much along the same lines, to be incredibly helpful. And I was gifted this right here. You can see it because we’re on video, which is actually a small, rectangular piece of metal that is intended to be a bracelet that you strap on your wrist.
And it’s a quote from Neale Donald Walsch, I believe, is the correct attribution. “The struggle ends when the gratitude begins.” And I just, I try to look at this as much as possible because it is so tempting to busy myself with tunnel vision, looking over the horizon at things yet to come, real or imagined. But at the end of the day, man, is this type of reframe and the reframes you’re talking about such potent medicine.
I would like to ask you about the title of your new book. How and why the title that you chose. You are exceptional at titling books, I must tell you. And wordsmithing in that way. It’s very impressive. So how did you end up choosing this particular title?
Anne Lamott: Well, my last book, the book before this, was called Almost Everything: Thoughts on Hope. So I’ve been traveling around the world to the country, to bookstores and theaters, talking about hope. And the people in my audiences just did not feel a lot of hope. They felt sad and scared. They felt very worried about Trump. And the UN climate change papers had come out that were just devastating, where the climate scientists didn’t really feel we could turn this around. And so I really felt that as a driving dream of mine, to be able to tell real stories from my own life and others, that would help people realize how hard things could be but how good we are at hard. And so I always loved this novel by Gabriel García Márquez called Love in the Time of Cholera. You probably read that in college. I thought it was just as good as — oh, my God. My mind went blank.
Tim Ferriss: The Thousand Years of Solitude, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. One of those.
Anne Lamott: One Hundred Years of Solitude, yeah. It takes a village.
Tim Ferriss: We got there.
Anne Lamott: And so I kind of had that as it was soul and hope in the time of cholera of Trump and the UN climate change papers. And so I thought that we were very, very much had gone from the dusk of climate disaster to the night of a lot of craziness and brutality and hopelessness, but that the dawn always arrives. And so I wanted to be as fearless as I could be writing about all three of those stages, but just helping people remember the dawn always comes. And I heard something, Tim, I thought was beautiful. Which was that twilight refers to dusk and dawn. Twilight is when the light is fading and becoming night and twilight is when the night is fading and becoming dawn.
And so I wanted to write these stories that were as real as possible, but that were as hopeful and real as I possibly could. Before we go, though, I want to give you a writing prayer.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Anne Lamott: Because I do have a prayer that I say when I write. Especially when I’m writing novels, which are hard. So I tell all my students, I pray: “Help me get out of the way to write what wants to be written.” Because I believe the material and the characters, as I said, know who and what they are, what they would do in certain circumstances. But K-Fucked Radio’s playing, and I’m trying to appear — I want people to think I’m more erudite than I am, which I’m not. I’m a dropout. I want people to think I’m more literary than I am. Neal says that Shapes of Truth, his 34 tips for writers, and one of them is, “If you think it sounds really literary, it isn’t.” You know? It’s overwritten. And so, “Help me get out of the way to write what wants to be written inside me.”
Tim Ferriss: I’ll use that tomorrow morning. And I was reading some coverage and interviews related to Dusk, Night, Dawn, and at one point you quoted a Rumi poem. Or a line from it, at least. Which is, “Through love, all pain will turn to medicine.” And I just have to say that I view you as a master of using both love and laughter as carbonated holiness to turn your pain into medicine for yourself. I certainly hope and believe. But also for the people who read your work and who are exposed to you. And I just want to thank you for that. I know it takes incredible effort and focus. It’s not accidental. And I want to thank you for doing what you do.
Anne Lamott: Well, thank you, honey. That’s really sweet.
Tim Ferriss: And if I could pull a complete 90 degree turn, just one more question. One or two more questions from me. Complete non-sequitur, but you seem to love movies. You seem to watch a lot of movies. And I would love to know if there are any all-time favorites or movies that you have watched over and over and over again that come to mind. Anything that this question prompts related to films that you might recommend or name for people.
Anne Lamott: I love movies almost more than anything. It’s funny. There’s a scene in the movie, The Mission with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, which most people didn’t see. Except for, they know the soundtrack by Ennio — what’s his name? Morricone or something. It’s E-N-N-I-O. Anyways, it’s called The Mission. And in it, Jeremy Irons runs a mission in the rain forest below these falls, where a tribe is being decimated. And Robert De Niro is a soldier and he has killed a bunch of people and he ends up at the mission. And he’s got this huge bag of weapons. And everything that has ever defined him. And he and Jeremy Irons and another couple of the brothers are climbing up past the falls to where the tribe is that needs so much help.
And Robert De Niro, it’s a scene. It’s five minutes. It’s nothing. He ends up talking to the chief and the chief wants him to drop the bag of weapons. And he’s not going to. They brought him to this point. He’s exiled, he’s ashamed. He’s suicidal. It’s the darkest, darkest place that could ever be, but he won’t let go of the weapons that brought him to this place. And it’s nonverbal. They don’t speak the same language. And the chief kind of does these expressions and these faces. And he finally takes a rope and he cuts this rope that holds the bag over Robert De Niro’s back. And Robert De Niro begins to sob. And they begin to laugh and cry together. And he buries himself into the chief’s neck. And it is one of the most profound moments I’ve ever seen in my life. How we will not let go of the stuff, the weaponry and the stuff that gave us the illusion of power, the illusion of control and domination. We just won’t let it go. It’s so beautiful.
There’s many movies. I mean, I love The Godfather and I love — I’ve completely turned on Woody Allen, so I don’t watch him with any pleasure anymore, but up until about 25 years ago, I had seen all of his movies, five and 10 times. What are your favorite? What’s your answer to that question?
Tim Ferriss: All right. I’ll buy you some time. I want to hear some more from you. I’ll mention a few. There are the movies that I’m embarrassed to admit. I’ll give one that I’m not embarrassed to admit. And then I’ll give a few that I am. The first is an animated movie called Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki, that’s how you’d say his name in English. It’s just a mesmerizing, fantastical film. And it’s so deeply layered. I lived in Japan as an exchange student for a year with Japanese families, went to a Japanese school. And it just sparks so much imagination and nostalgia and optimism in me. That continues to be one of my favorite movies of all time.
For each book that I’ve written, I tend to have one or two movies that I play in the background on mute, because I find writing to be such a solitary experience. So I’ll have a standing desk and then I’ll have a screen or a projector of some type with a movie playing in the background. But it has to be a movie that I’m very, very familiar with, or it’ll be really distracting. So for the first book, the movies were Shaun of the Dead, which is a comedy, and The Bourne Identity, the first Bourne Identity. Then for — let’s see, I think it was 4-Hour Body, the two movies were Casino Royale, the James Bond film. And then Babe, about Farmer Hoggett and then the pig. And I came to really appreciate Babe. It is a nuanced, hilarious movie.
But if I had to choose one that people might not recognize that I think is really beautifully shot and packed full of lessons, although often, they are interlaced with brutality, there’s a movie called The Prophet. I don’t speak French, but it’s French. So Un prophète, something like that. About, I want to say, I’m going to get the ethnicity wrong. But a young man/boy who’s incarcerated and is taught the ways of sort of the prison power dynamic, power dynamics by, I want to say the Corsican mafia. And it’s about his ascent and his troubles and his wins leading up to the grand finale of the film. And it’s beautifully shot. It’s very brutal. But I feel like there’s also a fair amount of beauty in that film. So those are a few that come to mind. Are there any others that come to mind for you?
Anne Lamott: You saw My Octopus Teacher, right?
Tim Ferriss: I did. I did.
Anne Lamott: That’s one of my favorite movies. There’s a movie I made Sam and my grandchild watch that changed my life. It’s called Bab’Aziz, the Persian movie. Did you see it? It’s Iranian.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know it. B-O-B-U-A-Z —
Anne Lamott: No, E apostrophe — Sam, look it up, will you? Bab’Aziz. The second name is A-Z-I-Z, but it’s a B-A-B. B-‘-A-B A-Z-I-Z. And it’s a great classic theme of — it’s a travel log with a very young girl. And it’s — yeah, it’s B-A-B-‘ A-Z-I-Z. And the subtitle is, The Prince That Contemplated His Soul. And it’s a movie within a movie about a very little girl taking her extremely aged grandfather to a festival of holy men, where you begin to understand, he probably is going to die. And it’s about all of life. It’s about life and death and despair and renewal and crisis and death and resurrection and new life and people and food. And it’s about an hour and a half. And it’s hallucinatory. And it changes you on a molecular level. I am not making that up.
Tim Ferriss: I am very excited to watch that. That might be on —
Anne Lamott: Yeah, I can’t wait to hear — yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That’s going to be on deck for this evening probably. I’ll see if my family will be game to watch it. Well, Annie, this has been such a pleasure. Is there anything that we haven’t covered or anything that you would like to say or any requests you’d like to make of my audience before we wrap up? Of course, people can find you at @Anne Lamott on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. It is Anne Lamott, and we will link to the books and the social websites, documentaries, everything we’ve discussed in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. But is there anything you would like to add before we close up for this first conversation?
Anne Lamott: Oh, I’m not sure. I would like to tell one quick story, if I might.
Tim Ferriss: Please.
Anne Lamott: For people who both believe in a higher power and people who believe in goodness and who believe that there is some sort of loving energy in this world that bats last. I would call it grace. But this woman in my recovery community about 15 years ago had a very severe oral cancer. And she’d had the top part of her jaw removed and part of her tongue. So she had a really dramatic speech impediment and she did the chemo and the radiation. She was fine. She was in remission for almost 10 years, and then it came back. So she shared at group level that she was going to have to do it all over again. Maybe have a bit more jaw removed and have chemo and radiation. Everybody just was so panic-stricken and uncomfortable about it.
They started doing what you do, which is saying, “Oh, my beautician’s son had that same thing and he’s fine now.” And “Oh, this.” And, “Oh, that.” And, “Oh, oxygen therapy.” And she just waved it away like it was cigarette smoke. And she said, “You know what? God’s got it.” And so I got that actually engraved on a gold coin that I wear around my neck that I touch constantly to remember that I’m not in charge of much, except for maybe helping the animals get the cans of cat food and dog food open every night because they have no opposable thumbs. But I just know that whatever you think of God, good orderly direction or group of drunks or grace over drama or whatever. That that life tends and tilts towards the good. And that we’re cared for, all evidence to the contrary. Every step of the way. We really are. We’re surrounded.
Emily Dickinson said that hope causes the good to make itself apparent. And we’re surrounded by that good. And we’re safe. That’s why I tell my Sunday school kids. You are loved and you are safe. So that’s what I’d like to leave everyone with.
Tim Ferriss: Well, that is the perfect place to bring this to a close. And once again, Annie, I feel very privileged and happy that after all of these years, after you helped me from afar, my time of need that we’re able to have this conversation. And I had an absolutely wonderful time and took a ton of notes and will be watching and looking up many things. So thank you again for taking the time.
Anne Lamott: Thank you so much, Tim. I loved it.
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